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The danger of identity theft after a car crash

Michele Lerner

Whether you are in a major car accident or even a minor fender bender, identity theft is not likely to be one of your immediate concerns after a crash. But you can't let your guard down as you swap auto insurance and other information.

Criminals sometimes stage car accidents to make false injury claims, and they can use information voluntarily provided at the crash scene to steal the other motorist's identity, says Sam Imandoust, a legal analyst for the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.

Lots of us may be giving up too much personal information after accidents. In a July 2012 survey, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, or NAIC, found that many drivers didn't know what details to provide and what to keep private.

"Understanding what information to share, and with whom, will help keep you safe after an accident and decrease some of the challenges of filing a claim later on," says Kevin McCarty, past NAIC president and Florida's current insurance commissioner.

State laws vary, but most say you need to share only your name and vehicle information with another driver after an accident, says Jeanne Salvatore, a senior vice president with the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

The trick is to say just enough, she adds. "The reality is you need to collect enough information to file an auto insurance claim, such as a name, address, phone number, driver's license number and insurance information, and share that information about yourself."

TMI? (Too much information?)

Imandoust says you should protect as much personal information as possible, particularly your Social Security number..

"No one ever needs your Social Security number after an accident," he says. "If someone asks you for it they could be trying to scam your insurance company by pretending to be hurt or trying to steal your identity."

Some states require a driver's license number to be shared after an accident. In the NAIC survey, 1 in 6 respondents said they would allow another motorist to photograph their entire license.

"If someone has your driver's license, they can use it to make a fake ID or to give to a policeman so that your driving record ends up with a ticket it on it," warns Imandoust. "Even if you have to share it, don't let anyone take a photo of it. It's especially important not to give your driver's license number to someone who doesn't have a license of their own."

The insurance commissioners' survey also found that 25 percent of consumers would share their home address, but that's not always necessary.

"You should avoid giving out that information because you don't want someone to know where you live, for safety reasons," Imandoust says. "Plus, your trash can be a gold mine of information, especially if that information can be added to the other pieces of information they've already gathered from you."

Don't know what's required? Call a cop

If you don't know the rules in your state for exchanging information after a crash, check with law enforcement. "Calling the local police will also put a dampening effect on a scam artist, too," Imandoust says. "You should give your information directly to the police rather than to someone who tells you they'll file a police report for you."

Filing a police report can be a good thing because it can help facilitate the insurance claims process, according to the NAIC's website.

And Salvatore says it's important to make sure you are getting information, as well as giving it, after an accident.

"Take down as much information as you can, including the make and model of the other car, the license plate number, the name and phone number of the driver and any other passengers, the driver's license number of the other driver, and insurance policy information," she says. "You should also get the names and contact information of any witnesses and the names and badge numbers of police officers."

Consumers who feel something is inappropriate about an accident or its aftermath should call the police and let their auto insurance company know, Salvatore says. Plus, consumers can report the possibility of fraud to the National Insurance Crime Bureau at (800) 835-6422.

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