Click on the words in bold for a definition.

What is identity theft?

Identity theft can happen when someone steals your personal information and then pretends they are you in order to get credit, spend money, or otherwise use your identity for their own gain. The government estimates that as many as ten million Americans will have their identity stolen in one way or another every year. There are many different kinds of identity theft.

How can people steal your personal information?

Unfortunately, there are many ways people can steal your personal information. Here are some of them:

  • Physical stealing: If someone steals your purse or wallet, they might get your credit cards, your checking account number, your birthdate, your social security number, and whatever other personal information you are carrying.

  • Dumpster diving: This is the name people use to describe looking in someone's garbage for information. A dumpster is a big garbage bin. Diving is when people jump into deep water. In this case, people "dive" into the garbage to get information.

  • Phishing: Phishing is a new word that sounds just like "fishing". If you want to catch a fish, you put some bait on a hook and you try to get a fish to bite the bait and get caught. Phishing is the same idea, but the person uses a fake e-mail or website instead and tries to get you to fill in your personal information and password so they can get it and use it.

    You might get an e-mail that says it's from a bank, a credit card company, Pay Pal, or Pay Pal is a very common way to pay bills using the computer. is a very popular shopping site on the Internet. Because many people use these sites, thieves try to write e-mails that look like they are coming from these sites. They often say something like, "There are some problems with your account and we need you to re-enter your password and your account number right away or your account will be frozen." If you click on the link and enter your information, it will go right to the scammer.

  • Skimming: Skimming is the name that describes what happens when someone takes your credit card to pay for a legitimate transaction, but at the same time stores your number in a special storage device to keep the number so it can be used later when you don't know it.

  • Change of address or new account: Someone can change your address on some credit cards, or open an account in your name with a different address. The report will go on your credit record even though it isn't yours.

What can you do to prevent Identity theft?

Here are some things you can do:

  • Protect your social security number: Don't carry your social security card in your wallet. Don't put it on checks or applications unless you have to. The IRS wants your social security number on tax forms, but at City College of San Francisco, for example, you have a student ID card with another number so you don't have to use your social security number. Many colleges and insurance plans no longer use social security numbers for identification.

  • Destroy papers: Use a paper shredder or other method to destroy papers with personal information before you throw them away. Be especially careful to destroy offers for credit cards.

  • Check your credit report: The three major credit bureaus are Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. You can legally get a free credit report once a year from each one. The official website to order a credit report online is . Sometimes you can print it right then, and sometimes they can't get it for you and you have to do it by letter. You can also ask for your report by phone or by mail. Some people suggest checking a different one of the three credit bureaus every four months.

  • Protect Personal Information: Don't give personal information to people on the phone or on the Internet unless you are the one who initiated the contact. For example, if you call your bank, you can give your information so they know it's you before they answer your question. However, if someone says they are calling from the bank and want some information, it would be better to get their name and then call the bank yourself.

    If you get an e-mail that says you need to put in your account information, you can call your bank to check, or you can go to the website yourself. If you do online banking or bill paying, it is very convenient and safe, as long as you are careful to go to the website and make sure it is the real site. Often the screen where you put in your personal information uses https instead of http in the URL, because it is more secure.

  • Protect your passwords: If you use passwords online or for ATM cards, don't use an obvious password like your birthday or 12345. Banks and other companies won't ask you for your password. If you have trouble with your account, they can send you a temporary replacement password which you can use and then change, but they won't ask you for it on the phone or in an e-mail.

  • Keep a list of what's in your wallet: Make a list of all the identification cards, credit cards, membership cards, etc., that are in your wallet. That way, if your wallet gets stolen, you will have all the information to stop payment on credit cards and to get new ID.

What should I do if my identity is stolen?

If your identity is stolen, immediately contact the bank, credit card companies, or anyone else that has your financial information. If you find something on your credit report that isn't yours, contact the credit report bureau. You can also get information from the government website Fighting Back Against Identity Theft for what steps to take if you are a victim of identity theft.

If someone calls saying you've been a victim of fraud, don't give them your account information. Sometimes credit card companies check to see if a purchase you made is legitimate, but in that case, they will tell you what purchase they are checking on. They won't ask you to tell them your account number to "verify" anything. If someone says they're calling from the police department, you can get their name and number and then call the police number in the phone book to see if they work there.

When you finish reading this article, click here to take the quiz. It will be in a new window.

Thanks to Beth and Mrs. Martinoli's class for the link to Avoiding ID and Credit Fraud for further reading.