Identity Theft & Computers
Identity theft occurs when someone uses another person’s private information to commit fraud. Identity thieves often apply for loans or open bank accounts and credit cards in other people’s names. To help people protect their privacy, we have prepared a handbook with tips on safeguarding personal information entitled "Guarding Your Privacy—Tips to Prevent Identity Theft." This handbook also contains information for identity theft victims.
Reduce Your Risk of Identity Theft
There are steps you can take to reduce your risk of becoming a victim of identity theft. First, remove your name from marketing lists. You may “opt-out” from marketing and promotional lists maintained by credit bureaus and other organizations with which you have a relationship. You may opt-out of preapproved credit offers online at www.optoutprescreen.com or by calling (888) 567-8688. More information on opting-out of such offers is available in our flyer entitled "Unwanted Credit Card Offers." Second, monitor your accounts. Check your credit card, bank accounts and credit reports regularly for fraudulent use. Many people learn that they are victims of identity theft, or discover the scope of the problem, when they find suspicious activity in their credit report or account statements. Under federal law, Minnesota residents can obtain a free credit report once a year from each national credit bureau. See our "Credit Reports" flyer for information on ordering your free credit reports. For more information on protecting your personal information, see our flyer entitled "Protect Your Personal Information from Marketers."
Identity Theft and Computers
Identity thieves increasingly use cutting-edge technology to acquire large amounts of personal information about people from computers. This typically happens in one of two ways. First, identity thieves might access private information directly from someone’s computer by installing spyware. Spyware is software that sends information from your computer to another without your knowledge or consent. Second, identity thieves may also access private information directly from websites by using malware. Malware allows identity thieves to test a website’s vulnerability and reproduce the contents of the website’s database, which contains security information that allows them to access individual accounts. More information on protecting your computer and online accounts is available in our flyers Internet Safety: How to Protect Yourself Against Hackers and Computer Malware and Phishing Schemes.
These scams generally begin with a call or email from a con artist posing as a representative of a well-known company, such as Microsoft or Norton. The scam artist typically claims your computer has been infected with a virus or is not working properly because of an error. The scam artist then says that he can remove the virus or fix the error for a fee if you allow him to remotely access your computer, usually by going to a website. In some cases, the scam artist uses this access to steal personal or financial information on your computer, which can be used to commit the crimes of theft or identity theft. Other times, the scam artist may attempt to install malware on your computer, which may allow the scam artist to control the computer remotely, or rogue applications that display fake security alerts to convince you to pay for a useless service. More information on this scam is available in our flyer Scams Targeting Computer Owners.
Junk emails take many forms. Some are attempts to sell questionable products, while others are attempts to commit financial fraud. Regardless, substantial damage can be done to computers by malicious emails. One serious risk is that the phony website, attachment or image linked to the email could secretly download malicious software (e.g. malware or spyware) that may damage the computer and allow the attacker to control it remotely. For more information on malicious emails and tips on stopping junk emails, see our flyers Computer Malware and Phishing Schemes and What You Can Do About Junk Email.
Identity Theft Victims
If your personal information has been disclosed to an unknown party, it is important to act quickly to minimize the damage. First, you may ask the major credit bureaus to place a “fraud alert” in your file to require creditors to contact you before they open new accounts in your name. To make such a request, you may contact the major credit bureaus toll free as follows:
Equifax: (800) 525-6285
TransUnion: (800) 680-7289
Experian: (888) 397-3742
You can also “freeze” your credit report, which blocks the credit bureaus from sharing your information with potential creditors. You may temporarily “thaw” the freeze if you want to open a new account or apply for credit. For more information on credit freezes, see our flyer entitled "Protect Yourself From Identity Theft." You should also monitor your credit reports and financial accounts for suspicious activity. You should dispute any erroneous information in your credit reports with the credit bureaus and contact your financial institution’s fraud department if you find unexplained activity on your bank or credit card statements. More information on this is available in our "Credit Reports" flyer.
If you suspect someone is using your Social Security number, you should report the problem to the Social Security Administration at (800) 772-1213. If you know that someone is using your Social Security number to commit fraud, you should immediately report the misuse to the Social Security Fraud Hotline at (800) 269-0271. Additional information on identity theft concerning Social Security numbers is available from the Social Security Administration.
Identity theft is a crime. Under Minnesota law, local police departments and sheriff’s offices are the officials with the authority to investigate criminal wrongdoing. You should immediately report identity theft to your local police department or county sheriff's office. If they do not have jurisdiction to investigate your case, they should be able to refer you to the appropriate criminal authorities. Federal officials may also have authority to investigate identity theft. You may also report identity theft to the following federal agencies, as appropriate:
Federal Bureau of Investigation
1501 Freeway Boulevard
Brooklyn Center, MN 55430
United States Secret Service
Minnesota Field Office
300 South Fourth Street, #750
Minneapolis, MN 55415
In addition, you should report identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission, which collects complaints from identity theft victims and provides information to law enforcement agencies nationwide. You may contact the Federal Trade Commission as follows:
Federal Trade Commission
Consumer Response Center
600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20580
TTY: (866) 653-4261
If you have concerns about the security of your information or believe you are the victim of identity theft, we also want to hear from you. You may call us at (651) 296-3353 (Twin Cities Calling Area) or (800) 657-3787 (Outside the Twin Cities), or submit a Consumer Assistance Request Form or Fraud Report Form to:
Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson
445 Minnesota Street, Suite 1400
St. Paul, MN 55101
The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office offers the following materials, which are designed to provide more information to Minnesotans about identity theft and computers: