Well, we’ve been saying it for awhile here: Identity Theft is on the rise!

To prevent identity theft, you need to understand how identity theft happens, and take certain steps to secure your personal information and protect your good name.

This article in the Provicetown Banner does a good job of covering the basics: how identity theft happens and what you can do to stop it. The feature story is included for your convenience here [emphases added], with our final thoughts below:

“With all the ways identity thieves now have to steal personal financial information, it’s almost surprising more people haven’t lost money to these sophisticated crooks.

And identity theft is a growing problem even in Provincetown, according to police Det. Monica Himes. There were 31 calls to the police department last year from residents concerned they were victims.

“I only anticipate it getting worse. It’s on the rise,” Himes said.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 10 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. There are, however, many ways people can protect themselves against identity theft. Himes said one of her priorities this year will be to publicize the do’s and don’ts of identity protection. The best defense begins at home, she said. It’s income tax time and if you have roommates or people regularly entering your home, keep your personal records under wraps and not lying out on a desk or table. The second thing to do is a regular check of your credit report through any one of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Federal law requires each bureau to issue you a free credit report once a year if requested.

“You should be checking once a year to make sure there are no accounts on your record that you’re not aware of,” Himes said.

If you suspect your personal financial information has been stolen, there are a series of steps to take immediately. Surprisingly, the first is not to contact the police department but to place a security freeze on your credit report, which prohibits a credit reporting agency from releasing any information without written authorization. Next, close any problem accounts and put a fraud alert on your credit file. The alert requires that creditors contact you before opening any new accounts or making changes to your existing accounts.

If you are aware of specific ATM, debit or credit cards that have been stolen, call the fraud department of each issuing organization. Even if those cards have not been used, if you suspect they have been stolen, cancel the cards at once.

Next, contact your local police department to make a report and send that report to your creditors and the credit bureaus. However, local police may not be the ones investigating the crime. If someone steals your financial information in order to open a credit card account in another state, the crime would come under that state’s enforcement laws.

But the best defense is to be aware of how thieves can obtain personal information. Bank statements, discarded credit card and ATM receipts, stolen mail, pre-approved credit card applications all provide personal information. Identity thieves can also obtain information through the Internet or the phone, including fraudulent telemarketing calls and emails, computer viruses and spyware. Identity theft can be stopped by installing computer virus protection and taking care in giving out personal information, among other things, Himes said.

But it can happen to anyone, including a Provincetown police officer who was a victim.

“It took him three years to get his identity back,” Himes said.”

This article does a good job of covering the basics of how your identity stolen. Basically, thieves are after anything with your personal and sensitive information on it. This includes bank statements, checks, pre-approved credit card offers, tax documents, social security statements, account statements, and even utility bills.

One of the most common ways criminals obtain this information is through mail theft (see this study). They steal incoming or outgoing mail from unsecured residential mailboxes or from low-quality locking mailboxes by fishing or prying.

The best defense against mail identity theft, which interestingly was not mentioned in the article above, is the use of a high security locking mailbox that is not vulnerable to fishing or prying. This protects your incoming mail, ensuring that your sensitive documents do not make it into the hands of would-be identity thieves.

In addition to using a quality locking mailbox, residents need to use blue USPS secure mailboxes to send sensitive outgoing mail like checks, and shred all mail before discarding it with a cross-cut paper shredder.

If you follow these three simple steps diligently, you will go a long way in preventing identity theft and protecting your good name.