By Elaine Cumby, Contributing Blogger
Junk mail is a nuisance for many consumers who receive daily postcards, flyers, specially-marked envelopes and pre-approved credit card offers. Junk mail also presents an opportunity for identity thieves to steal important personal information. However, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) explains, there are several steps consumers can take to reduce the amount of unwanted mail and the possibility of identity theft.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw out more than four million tons of junk mail every year, and what is one man’s garbage is an identity thief’s goldmine. A Javelin Strategy and Research survey estimates that 8.1 million Americans became victims of identity theft in 2007; with nearly half a million cases of identity theft occurring as the result of stolen mail.
“Many people view junk mail simply as a daily nuisance, but if credit card offers and catalogs are heading to the trash can in tact, that unwanted mail can become a much more sinister problem,” said Steve Cox, BBB spokesperson. “Preventing ID theft perpetrated through the mail requires the two-step approach of reducing the amount of junk mail received, as well as shredding any sensitive materials, such as credit card offers.”
The BBB recommends consumers always shred important documents and take the following steps to reduce the amount of junk mail they receive that could fall into identity thieves’ hands:
• Pre-approved credit card offers — Pre-approved credit card offers are an easy target for identity thieves who can steal incoming mail and use these offers to open fraudulent credit accounts. Stopping these pre-screened credit offers can help reduce the chances of identity theft.
• To “opt-out” of receiving pre-approved credit card offers for at least five years, and perhaps permanently, consumers can call 1-888-5-OPTOUT or visit www.optoutprescreen.com. This service is offered by the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Consumers will be asked for personal information, including their name, address, birth date and Social Security number. This information is only used to process requests and will remain confidential. This procedure will need to be followed for each adult family member.
• Direct mail offers — Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is a trade group with 5,200 member companies that use telephone, mail and the Internet to pitch their products directly to consumers. To stop receiving mailings from DMA members, consumers can go to www.dmaconsumers.org/cgi/offmailing. DMA regularly updates its list, but companies it notifies to remove names from their mailing lists may not be as prompt and it may take as much as six months before solicitations from all DMA members stop.
• Catalogs — A consumer’s mailbox can often be overrun with catalogs — even if they’ve never shopped with the company before. This is likely because the consumer has, at some point, made a catalog or online purchase with a company that handed over their contact information to Abacus, an alliance of catalog and publishing companies. To stop individual catalogs, consumers can contact the specific company in question. To stop mass mailings, consumers can e-mail, email@example.com, or write to Abacus, Inc., P.O. Box 1478, Broomfield, Colorado 80038.
• “Resident” and “Occupant” mailings — Consumers can remove their address from “resident” and “occupant” mailings that offer various goods and services, by contacting Valassis — formerly known as ADVO Inc. — either by phone, 1-888-241-6760, or through an online form at www.advo.com/consumersupport.html. Consumers can also send a written request to ADVO, Inc. Customer Assistance, P.O. Box 249, Windsor, Connecticut 06095.
• Coupon packs — To stop receiving coupon packs, consumers can visit www.coxtarget.com/mailsuppression/s/DisplayMailSuppressionForm and fill out an online request form. Other requests can be directed to the sender on the printed envelope received.
• Solicitations sent to children — If a child under age 13 is being mailed advertisements or credit card offers, it could be a sign that identity theft has occurred. Parents should contact the three major credit reporting bureaus, listed below, and inform them of the situation.
For more BBB advice on identity theft prevention, including trustworthy advice on staying safe on the Internet, visit www.bbb.org
Elaine Cumby is the branch manager of the Better Business Bureau of Middle Tennessee, Upper Cumberland area branch, located at 18 N. Jefferson Avenue, in Cookeville, TN.