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How to Avoid Identity Theft

3. Install a locked mailbox at your residence to reduce mail theft, or use a post office box.

4. When you order new checks, consider removing "extra" information such as your Social Security number, assigned driver's license number, middle name, and telephone number. The less personal identifying information you make available, the more likely an identity thief will choose an easier target. Do not have new checks sent to your homes mailbox. Pick them up at the bank instead.

5. When you pay bills, do not leave the envelopes containing your checks at your homes mailbox for the postal carrier to pick up. If stolen, your checks can be altered and then cashed. If stolen, credit card payments contain all the necessary information an identity thief needs. Never write your credit card account number or Social Security number on your checks when making a payment. Due to an increased risk of theft and vandalism, it is best to mail bills and other sensitive items at the post office, rather than from your residence or neighborhood drop boxes.

Credit Cards

6. Reduce the number of credit cards you actively use to a bare minimum. Carry only one or two of them in your wallet. Cancel all unused accounts. Even though you do not use them, their account numbers are recorded in your credit report, which is full of data that can be used by identity thieves.

7. Keep a list or photocopy of all your credit cards, account numbers, expiration dates, and telephone numbers of the customer service and fraud departments in a secure place (not your wallet or purse) so you can quickly contact your creditors in case your cards have been lost or stolen. Do the same with your bank accounts.

8. Never give out your credit card number or other personal information over the telephone unless you have a trusted business relationship with the company AND YOU HAVE INITIATED THE CALL. Identity thieves have been known to call their victims with a fake story that goes something like this: Today is your lucky day! You have been chosen by the Publishers Consolidated Sweepstakes to receive a free trip to the Bahamas. All we need is your credit card number and expiration date to verify you as the lucky winner."

9. Always take credit card and ATM receipts with you. Never toss them in a public trash container.

10. Request, in writing, that the issuer for each of your credit cards, remove your name from their marketing and promotional lists which they may sell or share with other companies. In addition, if any of your credit card issuers send random issue convenience checks, request (in writing) to be removed from the mailing list. Credit card convenience checks are easy prey for identity thieves to steal and use while often times, the consumer is unaware that the checks were even issued. Your credit card billing statement should contain a different address for "correspondence" to the issuer. Do not send your requests to the same address where you send your credit card payments.

11. Watch the mail when you are expecting a new credit card that you have applied for or a reissued credit card that has expired. Immediately contact the issuer if the credit card does not arrive.

12. One of the benefits for consumers using the Internet, a global network of interlinked computer networks, is the ability to purchase products and services around the clock electronically from the convenience of their home or office. One of the drawbacks is the potential for fraud and deception. Be very careful before you use a credit card on the Internet or provide personal information (such as your Social Security number or date of birth) on an electronic application.

Passwords and Personal Identification Numbers (PINs):

13. When creating passwords and PINs, do not use the last four digits of your Social Security number, your birthdate, middle name, mother's maiden name, pet's name, address, consecutive numbers, or anything else that could be discovered easily by thieves.

14. Ask your financial institution to add extra security protection to your account. Most will allow you to use an additional code (a number or word) when accessing your account. Do not use the common passwords and PINs listed above.

15. Memorize all your passwords. Don't record them on anything in your wallet or purse.

16. Shield your hand when using your PIN at a bank ATM or when making long distance phone calls with your phone card. "Shoulder surfers" may be spying nearby with binoculars or a video camera.

Social Security Numbers

17. Protect your Social Security number. Release it only when absolutely necessary or when required by law (such as tax forms, employment records, banking/stock/property transactions, driver's/marriage/professional license applications, etc.). If a government agency requests important personal information, including your Social Security number, a Privacy Act notice should accompany the request. (5 United States Code section 552a(e)(3)) This notice will explain whether disclosure of such information is required or requested, the use that will be made of the information, and what will happen if you refuse to provide all or any part of the information. Your Social Security number is the key to your banking and credit card accounts, insurance and health benefits, making it a prime target of identity thieves. You may wish to utilize an "assigned" driver's license number rather than your Social Security number whenever possible. Assigned numbers are only available to holders of a non-commercial drivers license.

18. Do not have your Social Security number printed on your checks. Don't let merchants hand-write your Social Security number on your checks because of the risk of fraud. Currently, there is no law against a merchant requiring you to divulge your Social Security number before accepting a check, so you may need to be assertive. Offering an assigned driver's license number is usually an adequate substitute.

19. Order a copy of your Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement (PEBES) from the Social Security Administration every three years to check for inaccuracies or fraud. To request a PEBES application call or write to:

Social Security Administration
Office of the Inspector General
210 Walnut Street
100 Euclid Avenue
Des Moines, IA 50306
Phone: 515-284-4345
Phone: 800-772-1213
website to download a PEBES application:

Responsible Information Handling

20. Carefully review your credit card statements and phone bills, including cellular phone bills, for unauthorized charges or fraudulent use. Be aware that under current laws, your local telephone company is obliged to let other carriers use their billing systems for a fee. More and more unscrupulous third parties are billing consumers for goods such as; special services, calling plans, or memberships that they did not order and do not want (commonly called "cramming"). Scrutinize your local, long distance and cellular telephone bills each month for fraudulent or unauthorized charges. Be aware that some long distance telephone companies resort to deceptive tactics to switch your service without authorization (commonly called "slamming"). You may contact your local telephone company to verify your long distance carrier and request a "freeze" on your account so it cannot be changed without your specific authorization using a password.

21. Do not toss credit card convenience checks or pre-approved credit offers in your trash or recycling bin without first tearing them into small pieces or shredding them. They can be used by "dumpster divers" to cash the checks or order credit cards in your name and mail them to their address. Do the same with other sensitive information like credit card receipts, banking statements, phone bills, and so on. Home shredders can be purchased in most office supply stores.

22. Demand that your financial institution adequately safeguard your personal identifying information. Discourage your bank from using the last four digits of the Social Security number as your assigned personal identification number (PIN). Request that your bank remove account numbers from ATM receipts (many have already done so). Inquire whether they shred all paper records before discarding them. Always take your receipts from ATMs with you and shred or store them in a safe place. By adopting responsible information handling practices, you and your financial institution can reduce the risk of fraud.

23. When you fill out credit or loan applications, find out how the company disposes of them. If you are not convinced that they store them in locked files and/or shred them, take your business elsewhere. Some auto dealerships, department stores, car rental agencies, and video stores have been known to be careless with customer applications or an employee at the business with "insider access" may retrieve your personal information to sell or use fraudulently. When you pay by credit card, ask the business how it stores and disposes of the transaction slip. Avoid paying by credit card if you think the business does not use adequate safeguards.

24. Store your canceled checks in a safe place. In the wrong hands, they could reveal a lot of information about you, including your account number, telephone number and driver's license number. Never permit your credit card number to be written onto your checks. Iowa law prohibits a merchant from recording your credit card number or expiration date as a condition of acceptance of a check for the sale of goods or services. Iowa law does NOT prohibit a merchant from requesting that you display a credit card, and it allows the merchant to record only the name and issuer (bank name) of the credit card. However, a credit card number may be requested and recorded in lieu of a deposit to secure payment in the event of loss, damage, or default. (Iowa Code section 537.8101)

25. When in public places, always be aware of your surroundings. Thieves commonly use a distraction in cramped public places, such as elevators, escalators and revolving doors to "bump and lift" your money, identification, and credit cards. Be especially cautious with bags and purses that can be an easy target for a thief to "grab and run."

26. Magazines, credit card companies, clubs and organizations, charities, manufacturers and retailers make lists of their subscribers, customers, members and donors available to other businesses for a fee. Your information is reproduced and sold in countless ways. You should always exercise caution when you are making personal identifying information available by utilizing the Internet, sending a mail-in rebate/survey/warranty card, entering a drawing or sweepstakes, donating money, and even subscribing to magazine services.

If you have any further questions or concerns, or if you would like additional information, please contact:

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller
Consumer Protection Division
1300 East Walnut
Hoover State Office Building
Des Moines, IA 50319
Phone: 515-281-5926

This publication originates from the:
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, 5384 Linda Vista Road, Suite 306, San Diego, CA 92110; phone: 619-298-3396; e-mail:

With their consent, it has been adapted for Iowa consumers, edited and distributed by the Consumer Protection Division of the Office of Attorney General Tom Miller, Iowa Department of Justice. March 1998