With the addition of technology, a generation of criminals was created with the sole purpose of using an individual's personal information to obtain access to financial records.  There are several methods by which criminals obtain personal information.

Personal Information:  Personal information refers to social security numbers, full account numbers, banking information, etc. which criminals obtain and use to open new accounts or steal money from existing accounts.  Reputable businesses will not ask for your this personal information over a telephone or email.

How do criminals obtain information?
Criminals obtain personal information in a variety of ways which include, but are not limited to the following:
     Information from a stolen purse or wallet
     Theft of mail 
     Searching through trash containers to find documents with personal information
     Internet transactions on unsecured web sites
     Telephone scams requesting information
     Illegally obtaining credit and debit card information from businesses or ATM's
How to prevent these scenarios?
Being aware of how criminals obtain the information, how should one proceed to prevent these issues from occurring?  Each scenario has different prevention methods; however, as a general rule, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

Stolen purse or wallet:  Always have personal possession of your purse or wallet.  Do not leave these items in the vehicle or other easily accessible areas.  During work hours, keep items in a secured locker, personal drawer, or under a counter or workspace.  Do not keep your social security card in your wallet or purse.  Most credible businesses no longer ask for a copy of your social security number (except for employment purposes).  A stolen social security card is instant access to obtaining funds with your credit.  Keep cards in a fireproof safe or safety deposit box.

Theft of mail:  With bills and bank statements being delivered in the mail, criminals often attempt to obtain information by stealing mail from a mailbox.  Always attempt to check your mail as close to delivery time as possible.  If available, request paperless billing to prevent information in your mailbox.  Allow your mailbox to be visible to neighbors and patrolling police officers by removing any large landscaping.  If you observe a suspicious person opening mailboxes, report it to the police immediately.  Delivering outgoing mail, especially bills, directly to the post office, carrier, or federal approved drop box prevents personal information sitting in the mailbox for extended times.  If you have not received a bill or statement in a timely manner, contact the company to determine if there was an issue, or your mail was possibly stolen. 

Trash:  Do not throw away any documents with personal information!  It is always best to shred or burn all personal documents, as thieves will search trash cans and dumpsters for personal information.  If unsure if the item has personal information, always lean towards caution and dispose of documents properly.  Criminals can obtain financial gain with a limited amount of information.

Internet access:  Access to criminals has become increasingly easier due to the Internet.  Many criminals are able to "hack" your information by what is submitted through online shopping, business transactions, and personal emails.  Criminals also obtain information from unsolicited emails or "spam."  Spam emails normally promise a benefit to the citizen in exchange for creating an account, by which they obtain personal information later used for financial gain.  Always complete shopping online through secured web sites.  These are identified by a lock logo in the upper left corner of the screen.  Consider obtaining a pre paid credit card to utilize for online purchases.  These cards normally do not require personal information to set up and prevent criminals having access to personal bank accounts.   Avoid responding to spam emails.  Remaining on reputable web sites you are familiar with will reduce the risk of information being stolen online.

Telephone scams:  While the public is becoming increasingly aware of telephone scams, criminals often change tactics to steal information from unsuspecting individuals.  Telephone scams vary from requesting money to help a person in need, pretending to be a relative in an emergency needing money, pretending to be from a bank institution or other company with a discrepancy needing to be resolved.  There are endless excuses used during telephone scams.  A popular scam is to request they send you a check to be cashed and request you return a portion of the money.  These are not legitimate business practices.  If you receive a scam, remember not to provide personal information over the telephone.  Banks, credit cards, and other financial institutions do not require you to provide your social security number or full account numbers, especially over the phone.  You can always end the call and re contact the company by the phone number provided on bills and statements.  If there are actual issues with the account, any operator will be able to assist you.  If an unknown number appears on your phone, and they are requesting information, always refrain from providing personal identifying information.  If someone requests money, ask the person to identify themselves.  If they claim to be a relative, always contact the relative directly to verify the information.  NEVER give personal information over the phone unless you are certain their identity. 

Being cautious at businesses:  Criminals may obtain information at ATM's by looking over your shoulder to attempt to get your personal code.  They have many technological tools to utilize, including using heat sensing material to see which numbers you pressed.  Always be aware of people behind you and attempt to cover your hand while entering your personal identification numbers.  Check your bank statements regularly to see if there are any discrepancies.  Be able to tell the reporting officer the last place the card was used, as this is normally where the information was stolen.  Often large corporations have information stolen, including your personal information.  Companies are required to notify any involved parties if their information was stolen.  Should this occur, review your bank statements and credit reports to ensure your information remains secure.

What to do if your identity is stolen?

How would you know if your identity is stolen?  Many times, banks will contact you regarding suspicious activity on your account which is an excellent notification of identity theft.  If you start receiving credit cards which you did not apply for, someone may have stolen your information.  Any suspicious activity on your bank accounts, credit cards, or other financial accounts, should be reported immediately.  If your purse, wallet, or other personal records have been stolen, report the incident immediately.  If a business contacts you to advise their personal database has been compromised, check your personal credit accounts immediately.

Time is always of the essence when dealing with an identity theft situation.  Prior to contacting law enforcement, we ask you collect bank statements and account information with the fraudulent charges highlighted.  Officers will also ask the last time you used the credit card or bank account.  They will ask if you have automatic deductions from the account.  These questions help answer which law enforcement agency should report the incident.  For example, if your purse was stolen in Strafford, MO; however your credit card was used in Memphis, TN, you would have a theft report in Strafford and a fraudulent use of a credit card in Memphis.  The officer can explain further upon arrival to take a report.

1.  Contact the business of which you have suspicious activity on your account.  They will provide specific information to you regarding dates and times, which the responding officer will need.

2.  Obtain a statement or current list of account usage, highlighting all fraudulent charges.

3.  Report the incident to the police department.

4.  Contact all businesses with accounts which may be compromised.  Each company will offer different suggestions on how to protect your accounts.

5.  Obtain a copy of your credit report to follow up with any additional compromises.

Your credit report:  You are able to obtain a free credit report each year (one from each of the 3 different credit bureaus) without any negative affects on  your credit score.  Contacting these agencies and advising of a compromise will be advantageous in several ways.  The credit agencies may be able to identify other compromises you were not aware of yet.  They may also have additional information regarding the suspects who stole your identity.  Often it is advised to place a safeguard or red flag on your information.  Essentially this will request additional information from anyone attempting to access credit with your information.  In extreme situations, you may also freeze your accounts until further notice.  Follow the links below to obtain more information from Equifax, Transunion, and Experian.

Equifax:  1-888-766-0008                             Transunion:  1-877-322-8228                               Experian:  1-888-397-3742