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Understanding Identity Theft and What To Do About It

January 20, 2016
Jennifer Wilson
Jennifer Wilson

Identity theft is a crime in which an imposter obtains key pieces of personal information, such as Social Security or driver's license numbers, in order to impersonate someone else. The thief uses personal information to open new accounts, or may use your personal information to gain access to existing accounts.


Q: How do thieves get information to steal my identity?

A: While the internet and e-mail have introduced new avenues for stealing personal information, most thieves still get it the old-fashioned way—by stealing mail, wallets or purses; "diving" through dumpsters in search of unshredded documents with information; and skimming credit cards.


Q: How will I know if my identity has been stolen?

A: This is the truly scary part of identity theft: You may not know you're a victim until you apply for credit or try to buy a home or rent an apartment, at which time you would find out that your credit rating is shot due to the fraudulent activity of the thief. By this time, the thief may have racked up thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges and/or opened fraudulent accounts in your name. This is why it's so important to closely monitor activity on all your credit and bank accounts, and to order a free copy of your credit reports every year.


Q: Will I have to pay for fraudulent charges made to my credit card?

A: Federal law limits a credit cardholder's liability for fraudulent charges to $50, and most card issuers will even waive that amount. But the cost involved in cleaning up the mess made by an identity theft can exceed this amount many times over. With regard to theft from your bank accounts due to the loss, theft or skimming of your ATM or debit card, the amount of your liability depends on how quickly you report the card's loss or theft and the discovery of the theft of money from your account. So call your bank immediately to report your card's loss or theft, and also follow up in writing.


Q: What should I do if I discover that I have been a victim of identity theft?

A: There are very specific steps you should take; see our What To Do If You're a Victim article for details.


Q: What can I do to protect myself from identity theft?

A: There are many steps you can take to make it much harder for thieves to steal your identity; see our Take Steps To Protect Yourself article for details.


Your banker is ready to answer your questions about identity theft. Locate a branch near you and talk with a Hancock or Whitney banker.