Online Fraud: How to Identify It and Fight Back

Know the Signs

1. If a monthly bill doesn't show up on time, an identity thief may have stolen it. Call the company and inquire.

2. If you see mysterious charges on your credit card bills or a company mentions a charge that you didn't make, investigate further.

3. If you have always had impeccable credit and suddenly you are turned down, find out why. Maybe somebody else is tapping into your good credit.

4. If you order checks and they don't arrive in a timely fashion, call your bank and track them.

Do Your Homework

1. If you have a freestanding mailbox, get a different one. You want a mailbox that only you and your mail carrier can access.

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2. Don't pay bills by leaving them in your mailbox with the flag up. That's an invitation to identity thieves.

3. Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet, where it's readily available to pickpockets. You probably have the number memorized and you almost never need to present the card. Keep it in a secure place.

4. If your DMV uses Social Security numbers as driver's license numbers, ask for an alternate number. Same goes for student IDs and health insurance cards.

5. Ask your bank and your credit card companies to add a password to your accounts, so that no business can be transacted without that secret word. Make sure it's an unusual password that's hard to predict. Don't use your mother's maiden name!

6. If you find unfamiliar accounts on your credit report, immediately alert the credit bureau's fraud department. Also call and write to the creditor. Send your letter certified mail.

7. Weigh whether you want identity theft insurance. Chubb and Travellers were the first companies to offer it. You simply add it to your homeowner's or renter's policy.

Fighting Back

1. If you learn your identity has been stolen, you are eligible for yet another free credit report. Order yours from all three major credit bureaus. Go to Experian.com, Equifax.com and Transunion.com.

2. Ask the credit bureaus to "flag" your record with a fraud alert, including a warning that creditors should call you for permission before opening new accounts in your name.

3. Immediately file a police report. If your police department doesn't want to be bothered, raise a ruckus if necessary. You're going to need this official document. Be sure to keep a copy for yourself. Try to get the police to actually investigate the crime.

4. Cancel all your credit cards and get new ones. Be sure to ask for a code word for the accounts.

5. Report the thefts to your bank. Stop payment on all outstanding checks. Close your bank accounts and open new ones. Get a password. Get a new ATM card and choose a different PIN.

6. For every fraudulent account that appears on your credit report, write a letter to the creditor and send it certified. Include an affidavit (a letter written by you and witnessed by a notary) stating the account is fraudulent. Include a copy of the police report. Ask the creditor to close the account, correct your credit record and send you a confirmation letter.

7. If the identity thief stole your mail, file a complaint with the U.S. postal inspector's office, which investigates mail fraud.

8. Contact the Social Security Administration to verify that your retirement benefits are being properly credited and that your name is listed correctly.

9. For additional tips and support, contact the Federal Trade Commission. Congress appointed the FTC to be the clearinghouse for identity theft complaints. Go to www.ftc.gov.

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