Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing, but it has its dark sides, like criminals’ remarkable ability to build working frauds and scams from the flimsiest of starting points. One of those scams is address fraud, which hijacks your mailing address and uses it as leverage to commit fraud or identity theft. Here, we’ll discuss what address fraud is, and why it can be so devastating for victims.
Unauthorized Change of Address: How it Happens
The starting point for mail fraud is astonishingly simple: the scammer simply completes a change of address (COA) form and mails it in. This also can be done in person, with a scrawled signature and fake ID, if the scammer is better organized. In one highly publicized case, an enterprising Chicago man even successfully submitted a change of address form for the head office of courier company UPS.
The US Postal Service (USPS) has taken steps to reduce its system’s vulnerability. The online form charges a nominal $1 fee as a security measure, cross-checking the address on the form against the billing address of the debit or credit card used to make the payment. Even the ID requirement with an in-person change of address is relatively recent, coming after the 2018 UPS case and similar incidents.
Why Do Scammers Want My Address?
Once your mail has been redirected, there are several ways scammers and fraudsters can take advantage of you. With your statements and bills going to their address instead of yours, for example, they quickly can gain enough information to access your financial accounts or take out credit in your name.
Online merchants usually check to verify that the billing address on the card corresponds to the address given by the purchaser, so this is a key step in fraudulently obtaining goods or services. Once fraudsters have looted your identity to their hearts’ content, they also can make an additional profit by selling your information on the dark web. That’s a shadowy corner of the internet where, among other things, criminals operate a black market in stolen identities.
How to Recognize Address Fraud
While the USPS only publicly acknowledges a few hundred fraudulent cases each year, the real number may be much higher. In 2017, a CBS affiliate in San Francisco used freedom-of-information requests to establish that the Postal Inspection Service had actually received more than 17,000 fraudulent COA complaints. If you suspect you’re one of them, there are a few obvious signs to watch for.
The first is a notice of the change of address from the USPS itself: a notice of the change is sent to both the “before” and “after” addresses automatically. Unfortunately, those notices are easy to miss, and victims often don’t recall ever seeing one. A more obvious signal is that your mail stops arriving. You might not notice at first, especially if others in the household are still getting mail, but if your magazines, bills and statements don’t arrive at the usual time you should be asking why.
What to Do if You’re a Victim of Address Fraud
The moment you realize — or even suspect — you’ve been targeted in this way, you’ll need to act. Start by contacting the US Postal Inspection Service to report the fraud, then do the same at USA.gov’s scam-reporting page and your state’s consumer protection office. If the fraud appears to be happening locally, you also might want to contact your local police force.
Next, reach out to your bank, insurers and credit providers to let them know what’s going on. You also may want to request a credit freeze or extended fraud alert, to protect you from future use of the stolen personal information. Once your information is out there, it can be recycled and re-sold for years to come, so future-proofing your identity (and credit score!) is only prudent.
An Ounce of Prevention
It’s easier to prevent problems than to fix them after the fact. In the case of address fraud, the single biggest step you can take to protect yourself is to minimize the amount of financially and personally revealing mail you receive.
Banks, utilities, credit providers and insurers almost invariably offer the option of receiving statements and communications digitally, instead of in “dead tree” form. Switching from paper to e-statements and email notifications is an effective hedge against an unauthorized change of address.
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