The percentage is deceptively low. Only two percent of identity crimes are connected to the U.S. mail. But consider that two percent of the roughly 250,000 ID theft cases the Federal Trade Commission documents every year still comes to 5,000 mail-related cases.
With tax season in full swing and refund checks heading to mailboxes around the country, the U.S. Postal Service has ramped up its efforts to warn the public to keep sharp watch over their personal information - and to not get complacent in the wake of misleading reports that identity theft is on the decline. In fact, according to recent FTC stats, the number of reported cases leapt by 36 percent between 2006 and 2007.
Identity theft also is the number one complaint the FTC receives every year.
"Your identity is valuable," says postmaster General John Potter. "If someone steals it, it can take years to repair the damage. It can happen to any of us, in ways we never imagined."
Facing the reality of identity theft, the Postal Service and the FTC have teamed up to make sure people watch their mailboxes outside their houses as well as inside their computers. The most common ways identity theft happens include:
Dumpster diving. One of the oldest forms of modern identity theft is for thieves to simply rummage through your trash looking for bills, credit card statements, credit card solicitations, and anything else with your name and personal or financial information on it.
Skimming. Just because you are handing your credit card over to a store clerk does not mean you are safe from identity theft. Skimming is when someone takes your credit card information (or other account information) from an otherwise legal transaction. It can be as simple as jotting down your number and then using it to buy something, or as complicated as an employee, such as a waiter, using a magnetic reader to electronically copy your card's information.
Phishing. Everyone has received an E-mail from an African billionaire hoping to transfer his fortune to someone's bank account for safekeeping and willing to compensate you for your troubles. Most phishing scams, however, are not so comically obvious. Phishers pretend to be legitimate financial institutions - and indeed impersonate major financial player such as PayPal - in order to get you to reveal personal information. Commonly, these ersatz banks tell you there is a problem with an account and that you need to take care of it online immediately. Then they provide a helpful link.
Forged websites often look as convincing as the real thing. But never click on a link where personal data is concerned, especially one that was sent through E-mail. Call the institution that claims to have a problem with your account. Get the number from your own records, not from the phisher's conveniently provided web page. Never assume an E-mail financial inquiry is genuine.
Changing your address. A common, but less well-known, scam is when identity thieves simply go to the post office and fill out a change-of-address form, thus diverting your mail to some other address. Similarly, make sure that if you do change your address, your mail is getting to your new home.
Stealing. The world has gone high-tech, but street-level stealing is still with us. Stolen wallets, pocketbooks, or bags can yield a trove of information for an ID thief. Carelessly disposed receipts or envelopes are easy pickings, but skilled thieves can still take your life right out of your back pocket. Always keep an eye on wallets, laptops, cards, or anything with your identity on it or in it.
Theft also happens out of your sight. Thieves simply steal preapproved credit card offers, new checks, or countless other pieces of information right from mail boxes - or in some cases even right from the post office. Employees with access to personal information could simply take it when no one is looking or bribe others to get it for them.
The Postal Service and the FTC have launched a three-pronged awareness program amid the tax season to keep people on their toes. This time of year is one of the ripest for street-level identity theft, as is early in the month when seniors collect Social Security checks.
Deter. The best way to keep from getting into trouble is to make sure it never finds you in the first place. Safeguarding your personal information might take a few extra steps, but the payoff is never being surprised to find someone has swiped - or ruined - your good name. Shredding personal documents and account numbers is the first step. Not giving out personal or financial information over the phone or Internet - unless you know exactly who you are dealing with - is the second.
Never click on unsolicited E-mail or web links and refrain from using obvious passwords, such as a maiden name or the last four digits of your Social Security number. Above all, keep important personal documents locked up, especially if you have roommates or are using hired outside help around the house.
Detect. The best of us get victimized too, and if you can not deter identity thieves, the next best thing is knowing the warning signs that they've found you. If bills do not arrive as expected or your credit is unexpectedly cut off for no apparent reason, you could be targeted.
Keeping a close eye on your credit report is invaluable. Credit reports contain detailed information about who you are, what you buy, and what accounts you keep. Obtaining a copy of your credit report is free and your report should be reviewed annually. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion are the three major consumer reporting companies, and the law requires they provide a free copy of your credit report annually, but you have to ask for it. Visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com
Credit reports are not the only item in need of regular review. Bank statements, online or in the mail, should always be scrutinized, as well as bills or statements from any accounts or services with which you are connected.
Defend. If you think you are the victim of identity theft, you are probably right. The thing to do now is act fast. Place a "fraud alert" on your credit reports, which compels creditors to follow certain procedures before opening new accounts in your name or make changes to existing accounts. Contact one of the three major reporting companies, which will place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit report.
Placing a fraud alert also entitles you to free copies of your credit reports. When reviewing credit reports, keep an eye out for inquiries from companies you have never contacted, accounts you never opened, and debts you did not create.
Immediately close any accounts that have been tampered with or were not established by you. Contact the security departments of the companies belonging to those accounts and follow up in writing, with as much supporting evidence as you can give. The FTC provides the ID Theft Affidavit online www.ftc.gov/idtheft), which should be used to support any written statements. Always ask for written verification that bad accounts are closed.
Once you have taken care of placing fraud alerts and contacting creditors, file a police report. This will help you when creditors want proof of the crime. Finally, report identity crimes to the FTC at the website above or by calling 877-438-4338.