PREVENTING IDENTITY THEFT
By Carolyn M. Brown

Imagine being turned down for a job, denied a mortgage, or losing out on an education because someone else racked up charges in your name. Or worse, being arrested for a crime you didn't commit. Not cool.

Each year, millions of people suffer financial hardships because someone has taken their Social Security number, credit card account, medical record or other pertinent information without their permission to commit fraud or other crimes. The Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection reports that in the past five years, some 27.3 million Americans have been the victims of identify theft, including 9 million in 2002 alone, totaling nearly $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses.

Folks whose identifies are stolen can spend months or even years - not to mention their hard-earned cash - trying to clean up the mess thieves have made of their good name and credit record. A number of laws limit consumers' liability if they are the victims of identify theft, but not all costs are recovered, however.

According to the FTC, roughly 67% of all victims report unauthorized charges were made on their credit cards and 19% report fraudulent checks were written or withdrawals were made from their checking and savings accounts. While most identify thieves use others' personal information to make purchases, many commit such frauds as renting an apartment or home, obtaining medical care or seeking employment. Identify thieves also use their victims' names to open new account to obtain loans (personal, business, auto, mortgage) or establish some new type of service, such as a cell phone. About 15% of all victims report their information was used on tax forms or to obtain government documents.

It's easy for an identity thief to cull bits of information and apply for credit pretending to be you. How can someone gain access to such private information? Just think about what you carry on your person from day to day. Look at your identification card from your HMO or your driver's license; you'd be surprised how many companies use your Social Security number as your ID #. Now think about how many times someone has photocopied your driver's license or medical card. I have a home fax machine and on at least two occasions I have received someone's medical records or job application. The party sending the information obviously had the wrong number. Needless to say, I reported their error, but what if I'd been an unscrupulous character?

The most common way a criminal gets personal data is by finding a lost wallet or purse. Others steal your mail, including your bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, new checks, and tax information. Rummaging through trash for these items is so common it has a name: "dumpster diving." Some thieves go as far as to complete a change of address form to divert your mail to another location. Others scam people by posing as legitimate companies or government agencies. Still, some thieves practice "business record theft," gaining access to your medical, employment, or school records.

Then of course, there's the information you share on the Internet. Recent news headlines were filled with the account of a former AOL engineer accused of using data encryption and AOL Instant Messenger to steal a list of customers' screen names, ZIP codes, phone numbers and credit card types (but not actual account numbers). He allegedly sold the information to spammers.

Roughly 52% or all victims discovered their that they were the victims of identity theft by monitoring their accounts. Another 26% were alerted to suspicious account activity by credit card issuers or banks and 8% when they applied for credit and were turned down.

You may not be able to completely stop an identity thief, but you can make it more challenging for him or her to access your personal. Here are a few tips:

  • Before you reveal any personal information, find out how it will be used and whether or not it will be shared with others.

  • Pay attention to your billing cycles and contact your creditors if your bills don't appear on time.
  • Order a copy of you credit report from each of three major credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian and Trans Union - twice a year to make sure everything is on the up and up.
  • Don't give out personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you initiated the contact. Be sure to know whom you are dealing with.

  • Guard your mail from theft. Promptly remove letters and packages from your mailbox. Have the post office hold your mail if you are on vacation or away on a business trip.

  • Tear up or shred documents with personal information before throwing them in the trash. This includes credit card applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards and credit card offers.

  • Keep your personal items in a safe place, especially if you have roommates or employ outside help, such as a cleaning service. Use a lockbox, which can be purchased at any office supply store.

  • Update your virus protection software regularly. Use a firewall program, especially if you have a high-speed connection.

  • Use a secure browser - software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet - to guard the security of your online transactions.
If you feel that your mail has been tampered with, you can contact the US Postal Service. If your checks have been stolen or misused, first stop payment; then contact the National Check Fraud Service (1-843-571-2143) and check verification services that will notify retailers not to accept those checks.

If you think your identify has been stolen, there are four things you can do:

ONE
Contact the fraud departments of the major credit bureaus. Request a fraud alert be placed in your file, along with a victim's statement asking creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts.

TWO
Close any account that you know or believe has been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Contact the credit card company, bank, phone, wireless service, and utilities, and notify their fraud departments - in writing and verbally - of the situation. Use an ID Theft Affidavit when disputing new unauthorized accounts.

THREE
File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the report to submit to your creditors and others that may require proof that indeed a crime was committed.

FOUR
File your complaint with the FTC. You can call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline toll-free at 1-877-IDTheft (438-4338). The Social Security Administration also has a Fraud Hotline at 1-800-269-0271.

Treat this seriously. It's been said that the ability to borrow money can, at times, be worth more than money itself. Always do all you can to take special care of your credit and good name.

*****
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