dollars&sense
Part II: Protection and damage control. Identity theft has Americans fighting mad. A crime that touches as many as one in five people across the country, stealing others’ identities has become the larceny of the new millennium. With no more than a few pieces of personal information, New Age thieves can take over another person’s identity and use it to help themselves to funds in financial accounts, open new accounts, make loans, buy goods and services, collect benefits and commit other crimes. With too few legal safeguards in place and too many difficulties finding and prosecuting wrongdoers, most of us feel frustrated, angry and frightened at the prospect of becoming an identity thief’s next victim. Clearly, long-term solutions lie in more vigilant and technologically sophisticated corporate security, more considered processes for card issuers and new legislation, such as security freeze laws that allow consumers to lock down their credit reports to prevent others from obtaining instant credit by using their personal information. Until law enforcement and regulatory forces catch up to a problem that is massive and growing, Americans must rely on their own resources to fight off attacks by these modern-day pirates.

IF YOU ARE READY TO FIGHT BACK
By now, you may be asking, “What are my best weapons?” The simplest ideas, while often discounted as to obvious, are perhaps most effective in making identity thieves’ work harder and less successful.

• Protect your information from prying eyes. Surprisingly, family members and neighbors are responsible for as much as half of all identity theft, stealing sensitive information from lost or unattended wallets, personal mail and financial and other documents left in plain view. Store checks, deposit tickets, bank statements, canceled checks, credit card statements, Social Security information and other personal data in a secure and locked location that ensures they can be seen by your eyes only. Make sure checkbooks and other financial documents are never left in a vehicle or a public area where opportunistic thieves can take them without your notice.

• Safeguard your mail and your trash. Your mailbox and trashcan are gold mines for thieves hoping to get valuable data. Before you throw away any bank or credit card statements, credit receipts or credit card offers, make sure they are shredded with a crosscut shredder designed to completely destroy printed documents.

• Mail check payments only from a post office. Personal and business mailboxes are tempting targets for thieves hoping to get their hands on your checks.

• Contact your check supplier (and financial institution, as necessary) if you do not receive a new check order within a reasonable amount of time after your order date. When you receive a check order, make sure that all checks are accounted for and that no checks are missing. Notify your financial institution if you don’t receive all checks ordered; they may have been stolen from your mailbox or lost in transit.

• To reduce pre-approved credit offers and other marketing mail that thieves might use to steal from you, request that your name be removed from marketing lists used by banks and retailers by contacting the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service. Complete the association’s online request form at www.dmaconsumers.org, or mail a letter of request containing your name, address and signature to Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512.

• Check your bank statements electronically at least twice a month. With regular review, you will spot fraud more quickly, and you can take action to minimize the damage thieves might do. If you wait for a monthly or quarterly paper statement, you may lose valuable time. And when it comes to combating identity theft, time equals money.

• Keep your Social Security number to yourself. One of the numbers that thieves covet most is your Social Security number, the key that unlocks your credit reports, bank accounts and scores of additional financial and personal accounts. Think carefully before providing the number — even when it is requested for a legitimate transaction. Avoid putting your Social Security number on personal checks or credit receipts.

• Secure your home computer. Although offline identity theft is still more common, cyber-thievery is clearly on the rise. If you leave your computer vulnerable, the chances are greater that an enterprising identity thief will find and take advantage of the weakness. Install a firewall, buy virus-protection software, and be cautious about providing financial and personal information online. Do business on the Internet only with organizations that you know to be trustworthy, and make sure any site on which you share personal information has verified security measures in place. If you dispose of a PC, remove your data with a “wipe” utility program. Erasing files manually is not sufficient.

• Choose hard-to-guess passwords. Skilled computer hackers know that users like to incorporate personal information into their passwords. To stay steps ahead of anyone trying to break into your computer and access the sensitive information stored there, choose passwords that are unassociated with information such as your Social Security number (or even a part of it), your maiden name, your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, your middle name, your pet’s name or consecutive guessable numbers. And avoid taking the easy way out by choosing one password for all accounts — it can put you in a dangerous
position.

• Leave credit cards and other important identity documents at home unless you really need them. With more than two-thirds of all identity theft occurring offline — as a result of a lost or stolen wallet or similar incident — your best protection is to minimize thieves’ opportunity by carrying only the information that is absolutely necessary.

• Plan for the worst. Keep detailed records about account numbers and related information in a safe place where it can be easily retrieved if you need to report a theft. Photocopy the contents of your wallet, including both sides of your driver’s license, all credit cards, your Social Security card and other items so you will have account numbers, expiration dates and phone numbers if your purse or wallet is stolen.

IF YOU ARE A VICTIM
Even with your best efforts, one day you may learn that someone has taken what is rightfully only yours to use — your personal identity. When that happens, you will need to take immediate steps to stop a thief from continuing to victimize you. The sad truth is that you will spend many hours and many dollars to do that. In fact, the average identity theft victim spends about 600 hours and more than $1,000 to resolve credit and other problems, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit group in San Diego. Some cases can be more costly in both time and money.

• Contact the three major credit bureaus and enlist their help. The three — TransUnion (www.transunion.com), Equifax (www.equifax.com) and Experian (www.experian.com) — will issue fraud alerts on your credit reports within 24 hours of your contact. The alert will advise creditors to call for permission before opening any new accounts in your name. Unfortunately, no law requires creditors to heed fraud alerts, so the burden is on you to check your own credit reports regularly to determine if new accounts have been opened.

• Change account access information. Change all of your account passwords, and contact banks to obtain new account numbers for your accounts. Pick new PINs for your ATM and debit cards. Contact the Social Security Administration to get a new Social Security number if your number is being used by an identity thief. You will also want to notify your telephone, long-distance, cell phone, water, gas and electric companies to inform them that someone may try to open new accounts in your name. If your driver’s license has been stolen, you may need to change the number by contacting the Department of Motor Vehicles.

• Report the crime to appropriate authorities. As a first step, contact your local police department and file a police report that lists all fraudulent accounts. Request copies of the police report and send them to credit agencies and creditors as proof of the crime. If you suspect mail theft, contact the Postal Inspector. Notify the FTC at (877) 438-4338 or www.ftc.gov. Complete the ID Theft Affidavit on the FTC Web site, make copies and send to creditors. Unless your losses are especially large, the FTC will not investigate, but it does monitor all levels of identity theft to measure fraudulent activity and track patterns that help it break up larger theft rings. If your Social Security number has been used fraudulently, contact the Inspector General.

• Report fraudulent transactions directly to creditors. Contact creditors in writing about any existing accounts with questionable activity or accounts opened without your knowledge. Request copies of any fraudulent transactions for your records and those of your law enforcement agency.

• Keep complete records of all actions you take. Record the name, title and phone number of each person you contact, along with a brief description of the conversation and actions taken, in case you need to make follow-up calls.

By JUDY ALEXANDER