What is identity theft?
According to the Federal Trade Commission, millions of Americans have their identity stolen each year. Identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information without your permission to commit fraud or other crimes for the purpose of:
- Assuming another person’s identity through the use of your name, Social Security number or driver’s license information;
- Obtaining bank or credit card account information to establish credit, make purchases or even apply for loans;
- Using your name or health insurance information to see a doctor or get prescription drugs;
- Stealing money directly from credit, checking or savings accounts;
- Gaining employment.
- Filing bankruptcy or;
- Leasing or purchasing automobiles.
Florida is consistently a top target for identity theft. It is important for Floridians to know how to prevent identity theft and also what to do if your identity is stolen.
How does identity theft occur?
Identity theft can occur in a number of ways, either through digging through your trash, recording your credit card numbers, obtaining your personal information through false pretenses, changing your address to receive items at a separate location, and stealing wallets, purses or driver’s licenses. Legal authorities call such crimes dumpster diving, skimming and phishing.
Your un-shredded bank statements, credit card statements, medical bills, pre-approved credit card solicitations and other personal documents can attract thieves and lead to a financial tragedy. Any one of those documents can be sitting in your outside garbage bins, waiting for someone to come steal them and piece together an identity.
Criminally minded retailers can easily run your card in a special copying machine during the course of legitimately running your transactions.
This word looks funny but sounds familiar. Every day, thousands of people receive emails from senders claiming to be financial institutions and requesting that you click on a link to verify information. These links actually take you to sites created by thieves to gain your personal information.
Never log onto a financial site from an email link. Always type your bank’s address separately and log on apart from email. Use two-step authentication for your email services and any other service such as Facebook that allows that as an option. Two-step authentication requires that, before you log on at an unusual computer to use a service, that provider will ask you to verify your identity by entering a personal identification number sent to your phone. This is very effective.
Also, use different passwords for different accounts. After all, there are frequent news reports of criminals obtaining password files from prominent companies, even from the likes of eBay. If you use the same password for all your sites, all it takes is one site to be compromised and you are in serious jeopardy.
Changing your address
This is self-explanatory. Thieves complete a change-of-address form to have your personal documents sent directly to them.
Just plain stealing
The age-old grab and run! Don’t let this conventional means of stealing your identity fool you. Carrying little cash with you should not negate your concerns for losing your wallet. Credit cards, Social Security cards, health care needs and any other nonthreatening document can give thieves exactly what they need to steal from you.
Thieves will try to obtain your personal information under false pretenses such as fake lottery winning scams, false job advertisements, etc. Prospective thieves will tell you that, in order to claim your “winnings” or other benefit(s), you simply need to provide certain personal information to confirm you are the correct person to receive the prize/benefit. That information is then used to open account and steal your credit. Protect yourself by simply considering “if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”
Threat of Arrest or Prosecution
More aggressive thieves will pose as law enforcement or an agent of the Internal Revenue (“IRS”) and demand that you pay money (via wire transfer, gift cards or CashApp/Venmo/Zelle) in order to avoid being arrested. Always remember, no legitimate law enforcement entity will demand money to avoid arrest and the IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information.
Hackers will connect to public WIFI networks or unsecured home networks looking for personal information. Savvy hackers may even install key logging software that can track websites that you visit and passwords that you enter. Protect yourself by avoiding online banking on public WIFI networks and make sure your home network is secured.
What they do with your information
Thieves can open credit card accounts in your name, fail to pay bills and hurt your credit. By changing your billing address, you may never know that your account is being charged. Utilities, wireless, cable and heating accounts can be opened using your information. Thieves can create fake checks using your name, write illegitimate checks or duplicate your ATM card. Some thieves may even take out loans in your name. Fake IDs can be made using the thief’s picture with your information. Vehicles and houses are not to be discounted; they can be rented in your name, and thieves can obtain jobs using your Social Security number.
Laws addressing identity theft
Under Florida law, the minimum punishment for identity theft varies based upon the amount of financial injury and/or the number of victims involved. For example, theft or fraud of at least $5,000 or use of 10 to 20 victim’s identities carries a mandatory minimum penalty of 3 years in prison. Theft or fraud in excess of $50,000 or use of 20-30 victim’s identities carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years in prison. And, theft or fraud in excess of $100,000 or use of more than 30 victim’s identities carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. Fla. Stat. §817.568. The identity thief will also be required to pay restitution to the victims including out-of-pocket costs, attorney’s fees incurred by the victim in clearing the victim’s credit history or credit rating, or any costs incurred in connection with any civil or administrative proceeding to satisfy any debt, lien, or other obligation of the victim arising as the result of the actions of the defendant.
Under Federal law, the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 carries penalties of up to 15 years in prison and fines, depending on amounts and the person’s criminal background. 18 U.S.C. § 1028(a)(7). This, when coupled with other federal criminal laws such as identification fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1028), credit card fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1029), computer fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1030), mail fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1341), wire fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1343), or financial institution fraud (18 U.S.C. § 1344) can carry substantial penalties as high as 30 years imprisonment and criminal forfeiture.
Other civil laws that could be involved as a result of identity theft, include credit laws used to protect consumers; the Fair Credit Reporting Act; the Fair Credit Billing Act; and many others.
There are some ways you can protect yourself from identity theft.
Order and review copies of your financial report from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The Fair Credit Reporting Act guarantees you access to your credit report for free from each of those three nationwide credit reporting companies, every 12 months.
The Federal Trade Commission has received complaints from consumers who thought they were ordering their free annual credit report but couldn’t get it without paying fees or buying other services. TV ads, email offers, or online search results may tout “free” credit reports, and some websites purport to offer a free credit report and score if you sign up for credit monitoring. Some agreements require that you waive your right to a jury trial and agree to arbitration.
However, there is only one authorized source for a truly free credit report: AnnualCreditReport.com.
You also can call 877-322-8228 to receive a copy of your credit reports. It is a lot simpler and quicker than jumping through all the hoops on the internet, and you do not risk mistakenly agreeing to waive your right to a jury trial by arbitration. Be sure to stay on the line until you have ordered all three reports.
You can order your free copy of your Innovis report by calling 800-540-2505.
- Empty your wallet of extra credit cards and identity cards.
- Only take necessary cards with you when traveling and be sure to make a list or copy of the cards so that you can call the credit card companies if they are stolen.
- Shred all financial receipts and never leave them at the retail location.
- Shred all financial documents you plan to discard.
- Release personal data only to agencies that require it to initiate certain actions.
- Ensure your PIN cannot be viewed by others when entering it into an ATM.
- Do not keep passwords or your Social Security number in your wallet.
- Remove mail promptly from your mailbox. If you do not receive mail for a week or more, check that your mail is not being forwarded.
- If you start receiving mail for someone who does not live with you and is not a former resident of that address, that person may be setting up a way to have future mail from your household forwarded.
- Deposit outgoing mail in locked post collection boxes, not in your mailbox.
- Use caution when supplying your financial information over the Internet. Use only one credit card over the Internet. Generally, it is not a good idea to use debit cards.
- Never carry your Social Security Card with you.
- Take your name off marketing hit lists by opting out of credit card solicitations and adding your name to the Do-Not-Call registry (1-888-382-1222).
What if you become a victim?
All is not lost if you do become a victim. Obtain a police report immediately, fill out an FTC Identity Theft Affidavit and immediately notify the credit bureaus that you have become a victim. Detailed instructions are also available in the Florida Attorney General’s Identity Theft Kit on how to proceed.
- Equifax: 800-525-6285; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241; www.equifax.com
- Experian: 888-397-3742; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013; www.experian.com
- TransUnion: 800-680-7289; P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634; www.transunion.com/identity-protection
Follow up with the credit bureaus in writing. If your credit reports contain fraudulent accounts, you should specifically dispute each fraudulent account to the credit bureaus. The credit bureaus are required by law to submit all of the essential information of your dispute to the entities that furnished the information.
Be as detailed as possible. The dispute should include a copy of the police report and the FTC Identity Theft Affidavit.
You may want to send an identity theft validation letter to every creditor that is on your credit report or that contacts you and to which you do not owe the debt. If, after you file your dispute, creditors continue to try to collect the debt by sending you dunning letters or by placing or leaving items on your credit report, then you probably have a claim under Florida’s Consumer Collection Practices Act and/or the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
If the creditors or debt collectors ask you for more information, you should provide it. If you do not, they will take the position in any litigation that you failed to mitigate your damages. Most judges and juries are going to expect you to use your best efforts to solve the problem.
If you dispute in writing and send the disputes via certified (mail return receipt requested), you greatly improve your odds of having the problem fixed by the credit bureaus with or without a lawsuit. Obtain an extended fraud alert on your credit reports.
Use experienced counsel when bringing claims under the FCRA, as these claims often end up in federal court. If there is a prosecution, the court has authority to issue orders to correct public records. See § 817.568(15)(b), Florida Statutes.
Someone may have obtained a driver’s license using your identity. Check with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
If mail theft or a bogus change-of-address card was submitted, contact the U.S. Postal Inspector.
Call the Social Security Fraud Hot Line at 800-269-0271.
To request that retailers not to accept your checks, call:
- TeleCheck at 800-710-9898.
- TRS Recovery Services at 800-927-0188.
- Certegy Inc. (previously Equifax Check Systems) at 800-437-5120.
To find out if the identity thief has been passing bad checks in your name, call:
If your checks are rejected by a retailer, it may be because an identity thief is using the Magnetic Information Character Recognition (MICR) code (the numbers at the bottom of checks), your driver’s license number or another identification number. The retailer that rejects your check should give you its check verification company contact information so you can find out what information the thief is using. If you find that the thief is using your MICR code, ask your bank to close your checking account. If the thief is using your driver’s license number or some other identification number, work with your DMV or other identification issuing agency to get new identification. Once you have taken the appropriate steps, your checks should be accepted.
If you have disputed to the credit bureaus and done everything above without success, you need an attorney to evaluate your potential FCRA claims. It is usually helpful if you prepare a timeline showing each debt collector, creditor and credit bureau’s actions and omissions, listing at a minimum the dates of any dispute or request for validation, information disputed, the details and date/time of all communications with any debt collector, creditor or credit bureau relating to the alleged debt, and any denials of requested credit that occurred as a result.
If you do not owe the debt, any objective proof that it was fully paid or that you did not incur the debt would be helpful. Provide a chronological copy of the relevant documents, including credit reports, dispute letters and any information you have relating to derogatory information on your credit reports. This will help an attorney evaluate your case.
Examples of cases
In the Southern District of Florida, a woman was indicted and pleaded guilty to federal charges involving her obtaining a fraudulent driver’s license in the name of the victim, using the license to withdraw more than $13,000 from the victim’s bank account, and obtaining five department store credit cards in the victim’s name and charging approximately $4,000 on those cards.
In the Middle District of Florida, a defendant was indicted on bank fraud charges of obtaining names, addresses and Social Security numbers from a website and using those data to apply for a series of car loans over the Internet.
For more information
Contact the FTC’s Identity Theft Hotline at 877-438-4338; TTY: 866-653-4261; or write to the Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20580. You can also visit www.IdentifyTheft.gov to help report and recover from identity theft.
Links to Other Sources for Information and Assistance
This pamphlet is produced as a public service for consumers by The Florida Bar.
[Updated December 2022]