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Bonnie and Clyde-style bank robberies are no longer the preferred method for today’s thieves. Identity theft is now the most common way to steal from a bank. In fact, a 2003 FTC report estimated identity theft-related losses for financial institutions at $47 billion, far more than the $77 million lost to traditional bank robberies.

Banks are fighting back with ever-improving security methods to detect and deter fraud, and you can take steps to protect yourself as well.

How ID is Stolen

Identity thieves are constantly refining their methods, but most stick to simple, tried-and-true strategies. To acquire the personal information needed to break into your bank accounts, thieves may simply steal your checks or your mail or “dumpster-dive” into your garbage to find account statements and other discarded paperwork that contains personal information.

Sometimes thieves don’t have to take our information — we give it to them. E-mail scams known as “phishing” trick people into giving away their account numbers, Social Security numbers and other sensitive details over the Internet. Other people give out their information to telemarketers who call to ask for “identity verification” or claim to be giving away a prize or offering a new credit card.

For consumers who fall victim to these scams, the “prize” they receive isn’t what they expected.

How Thieves Use Your ID

Once thieves acquire your personal information, they can use it to take over your checking, savings or other account. They can create counterfeit checks with your account information printed on them. They can also add their information to your account, changing the mailing address or making other alterations to give themselves unlimited access. If thieves have your Social Security number and date of birth, they can also open accounts in your name to launder checks from an unlimited number of new accounts.

Of course, checks are just one way for you (and, potentially, identity thieves) to take money out of a bank. ATM and debit cards are another avenue for thieves. If they physically steal your cards, you’re likely to notice fairly quickly. The more insidious crime is “skimming,” which occurs when a thief captures your account number and PIN without actually stealing your card, so you may not find out for weeks or months that a crime has taken place.

How to Protect Yourself

  • Use a locked mailbox or P.O. box to prevent mail theft.
  • Shred unused or old checks, as well as any other documentation containing personal information that you plan to discard. Most banks will shred your old checks for free if you take them in.
  • Whenever possible, leave your checkbook and deposit slips at home, in a secure, locked location.
  • If you want to continue to use checks, recognize that anyone receiving them has access to your checking account information, so use them only with merchants you trust.
  • Do not have your Social Security number or driver’s license number printed on checks. You may want to consider listing only your first initial and last name instead of your full name.
  • Never give out your account numbers over the phone except on rare occasions when you know the company and understand why the information is necessary.
  • Monitor your account activity periodically, and check your monthly account statements closely. Report any discrepancies or errors immediately to your bank, both orally and in writing. The law generally protects you only for the first 60 days after your statement is mailed.
  • If you have trouble opening a new checking account or are concerned for other reasons that you may be the victim of identity theft, request a free copy of your consumer report from Chex Systems Inc. ( The reports contain specific information about your checking accounts. If the information is inaccurate, Chex Systems shows you how to dispute it.
  • Find a safe place to store a list of your account numbers, expiration dates and telephone numbers for every card issuer so you can report losses and other problems quickly.
  • When creating PINs, do not use numbers easily associated with you, such as your birthday or anniversary.
  • Don’t write your PIN on the card or anywhere in your purse or wallet.
  • Cut up old debit and credit cards, cutting through the account number before you discard them.

A Free Guide on How To Secure Your Identity & Protect Your Data