Identity theft: Those words send chills down the spine. Most of us work very hard to support our families and do everything within our power to protect them anc ourselves from any kind of harm. The idea that someone can come along and take away what took decades to create is not only mind-boggling but also frightening on the deepest level.
Identity theft remains on the rise. Many believe that the crime is now “of epidemic proportions.” Whether or not that is actually true, I’m unqualified to say. However, one thing is certain. Iidentity theft is now nation wide and it affects everybody from the rich to the poor. Also undeniable is there is still very little that you can do to prevent identity theft. Worst of all, by the time you detect that someone has stolen your identity, it is probably too late.
One must question why this crime continues to escalate. The answer is simple. For the criminal, identity theft is a relatively low-risk, high-reward endeavor. For the most part, credit card issuers don’t even bother to prosecute the thieves when they are actually apprehended. They say, “it’s not cost effective to do so.” Instead, they simply write off the fraud amounts as an expense of doing business and pass the cost on to us as credit card users in the form of higher interest and membership fees.
What is even more chilling is the fact that, in many states, identity theft is not even against the law. To top it off, in most cases it is the victim of identity theft – – rather than the thief – – who must prove his or her innocence. Failure to do so can result in collection agency harassment or, worse yet, prosecution. And if that isn’t frightening enough, there have been many cases where innocent people have been arrested – – and prosecuted – – because someone is committing crimes under their names.
An estimated 10 million people in the U.S. were victims of identity theft last year. The majority of this fraud was committed in a couple of different ways. The first is financial fraud, which includes:
– bank fraud,
– credit card fraud,
– social program fraud,
– computer and telecommunication fraud,
– tax refund fraud, mail fraud and more.
The other is criminal fraud, which involves the theft of someone’s identity in order to:
– commit a crime,
– get special permits,
– commit acts of terrorism,
– enter another country, or
– hide their real identity.
Crimes typically include computer or cyber crime, drug trafficking, money laundering, and even certain kinds organized crime.
Even in this day and age, many people don’t understand how easily criminals can obtain your information. Credit card fraud is identity theft in its simplest form. Mistakes like leaving a credit card receipt lying around can help identity thieves gain access to your identity. Some receipts only list the last four numbers of the identification number, but many others still list the entire account number. If the receipt is signed, the thief has not only a credit card number but also a signature to copy.
Another common way to commit credit card fraud is by picking up discarded pre-approved credit offers. Most people simply toss away this type of mail without a second thought. But a clever thief can easily use it to mail in a request for the card, under a new address, and start charging immediately. They can even apply for a card over the phone with the right information at their fingertips. Before you know it, the company starts harassing you for credit card purchases that you never made.
With a person’s name, social security number, and date of birth, an inventive thief can obtain loans, access your bank account, open a new bank account, lease or buy cars, get insurance, and much more. Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t just end there. People have been denied earned entitlements, passed over for promotion, denied employment (or even fired), denied insurance, forced to pay higher insurance rates, faced IRS audits, and much more.
Simple acts like tossing away pay stubs or bank statements can be fatal. Many people leave their cars unlocked not thinking about the fact that the car’s registration, which must by law be kept in the vehicle, is also a playground of information for an identity thief. Other targets for thieves include:
- Tax notices which can be stolen from the mailbox;
- W-4 information which can be stolen out of an employee’s file;
- Hospital records which can be accessed by an insider;
- Landlord files which can often be accessed by multiple people within the organization;
- Records from department stores which can easily be hacked into; and
- Internet sites from merchants to chat rooms.
Basically, anywhere that stores personal information like names, addresses, social security numbers, bank account numbers, employment information, and rate of pay can be a valuable tool to help thieves steal your identity. Public records are another great resource. Driver’s licenses, real estate records, business records, vehicle information, and even professional licensing information can easily be collected through public entities. Some thieves can even obtain enough information from seemingly innocuous sources like classified ads and phone book listings.
There are, however, things that you can do to protect your identity from these thieves. Here are some of the most important:
- Routinely pull a copy of credit reports. This should be done at least once a year; two or three times a year is preferable. Check for inaccuracies on a credit report which red flag potential problems right away.
- Shred everything, including all credit card receipts, bank statements, and other pieces of information that contain valuable personal information.
- Keep an updated list of your credit information, including credit card numbers and phone numbers for each organization so that you can report discrepancies as quickly as possible.
- Monitor your bank statements and credit card statements with a fine toothcomb. Immediately report any discrepancies.
- Request removal from all pre-approved credit mailing lists.
- Request removal from all telemarketing lists.
- Keep all personal information in a safe place. Secure pin numbers, access names, and passwords as well as social security cards, driver’s licenses, insurance cards, and passports.
- Make certain no one is watching when using a pin number, access name, or password.
- Keep your computer virus protection updated.
- Only use a secure browser when placing an online order.
- Do not respond to emails requesting your personal information. These generally ask you to confirm or provide account information, pin numbers, access names, and/or passwords.
- Do not provide personal information over the phone, unless you have verified the person, business, or organization.
- Never carry your social security card with you.
- Report any missing information like mail, bills, statements, etc. as quickly as possible.
- Require proof of privacy policies from any company with which you work.
- Have your mail held at your local post office or ask someone that you trust to collect and hold it for you until you return, when you are traveling.
- If you must pass on personal information to someone, do not do it an open phone booth where passersby can listen. Use a booth where you can close the door or wait until you are at a less public location to call.
Consider extra protection from identity protection companies such as LifeLock. These companies will perform services for you like setting alerts on your credit reports and updating them automatically every ninety days or as is required. They will also routinely pull copies of your credit reports for you so that you can do a periodic check. They will make certain that you no longer receive pre-approved credit offers.
In the event that identity theft does occur, these identity protection companies will fight on your behalf to regain your good name. They will even pay for the fight on your behalf. Their guarantee covers reimbursement of any and all direct expenses that are incurred. Some will act as attorney on your behalf. Most will work as long as it takes and exert their best efforts to restore your identity to its state prior to the theft.
The maximum amount that such companies will typically pay is $1 million over the life of the incident. No additional fees are added. (Note: Direct expenses include lost wages, long-distance calls, postage and other miscellaneous costs in addition to any funds that are actually stolen from you or a third party that holds you responsible.)
LifeLock charges $10 per month or $110 per year per adult. They do not, however, offer discounts for multiple adults in the same household since each person has their own individual identity, requiring the same amount of work to protect. They also offer identity theft prevention for children; the most vulnerable targets of identity theft because no one will likely find out about such theft until the child turns 18 and is eligible to apply for credit. Children under the age of 16 cost $25 pear year when ordered in conjunction with an adult enrollment. It requires no long-term commitment and can be canceled at anytime.
In the event you are not interested in protecting yourself through such a prevention program, here is what you should do if your identity has been stolen:
- Call the police and file a report IF they accept such reports. Remember that several states do not consider identity theft a crime. If your local police will not accept your report, contact your city and state officials and urge them to develop legislation that would make identity theft a crime.
- Place a “fraud alert” on your credit reports by notifying any one of the three national companies. They will, in turn, notify the other two.
- Contact your financial institution and let them know that a thief may be using your identity. If you find that any of your accounts have been tampered with, close them immediately and report the incident. Stop payments on any checks that are still outstanding that you did not write or approve. Change your ATM card, account numbers, and PIN numbers.
- Contact all agencies where you have accounts that an identity thief has taken as well as ones hat have been created in your name but without your knowledge. Cancel those accounts and stop payments on orders or outstanding checks that have not cleared.
- Contact the major check verification companies if you have checks stolen or bank accounts established. If you know that a particular merchant has received a check stolen from you, contact the verification company that the merchant uses.
- Contact your local FBI office and file a report.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
- Contact a reputable provider of identity restoration services. Be prepared to pay big bucks for their services which average around $1,000.
It is not all doom and gloom with regard to identity theft. More and more is being done about this crime every year. The Department of Justice now prosecutes cases of identity fraud and/or theft under a variety of federal statues. In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act. This legislation created a new offense of identity theft, which prohibits “knowingly transfer(ring) or us(ing), without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of the Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State of local law.” The offense carries a maximum term of 15 years’ imprisonment, a fine, and criminal forfeiture of any personal property used or intended to be used to commit the offense.
Schemes to commit identity theft or fraud may also involve violations of other statues such as Identification Fraud, Credit Card Fraud, Computer Fraud, Mail Fraud, or Financial Institution Fraud. Each of these federal offenses are considered felonies that carry substantial penalties in some cases as much as 30 years’ imprisonment, fines, and criminal forfeiture of property.
Below are phone numbers and addresses that will helpful to you should you need to report identity theft:
Equifax Credit Bureau: To report fraud, call 1-800-525-6285 or write P.O. Box 740250, Atlanta, GA 30374-0250; to order a copy of your credit report (for an average cost of $8), write P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241 or call 1-800-685-1111; to opt out of pre-approved credit offers, call 1-888-567-8688 or write to Equifax Options, P.O. Box 740123, Atlanta, GA 30374-0123.
Experian Credit Bureau: To report fraud, call 1-888-397-3742; fax 1-800-301-7196; or write to P.O. Box 1017, Allen, TX 75013; to order a copy of your credit report (for an average cost of $8), write P.O. Box 2104, Allen, TX 75013 or call 1-888-397-3742; to opt out of pre-approved credit offers and marketing lists, call 1-800-353-0809 or 1-888-5OPTOUT or write to P.O. Box 919, Allen, TX 75013.
Trans Union Credit Bureau: To report fraud, call 1-800-680-7289 or write to P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634; to order a copy of your credit report (for an average cost of $8), write P.O. Box 390, Springfield, PA 19064 or call 1-800-888-4213; to opt out of pre-approved offers of credit and marketing lists, call 1-800-680-7293 or 1-888-5OPOUT or write to P.O. Box 97328, Jackson, MS 39238.
The key to avoid having this crime perpetrated against you is education. Be informed and be prepared. You can bet that the identity thieves will be!