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Identity Theft Occurs All The Time
"I don't remember charging those items. I've never even been in that store." Maybe you never did charge those goods and services, but someone else did, someone who used your name and personal information to commit fraud.
When imposters take your name, Social Security number, credit card number, or some other piece of your personal information for their use, they are committing a crime. Identity theft is the fastest growing financial crime. One of the first things the FBI discovered about the September 11 hijackers was that as many as half a dozen were using credit cards and driver's licenses with identities lifted from stolen or forged passports.
If you care at all about the privacy of your financial information, your credit history, your portfolio, your charge card numbers, you can protect yourself from criminals determined to exploit that information. The theft can be as simple as someone stealing your credit card number and then charging merchandise to your account. The situation can also be as elaborate as a thief using your name, birth date, and Social Security number to take ownership of your credit card and bank accounts, or even set up new ones.
People who place their Social Security and driver's license numbers on their checks are making identity theft fairly easy. With one check, a con artist could know your Social Security, driver's license, and bank account numbers as well as your address, phone number, and perhaps even a sample of your signature.
Types of Identity Theft
Identity fraud can range from passing bad checks and using stolen credit cards to taking over another person's total financial existence. While situations as portrayed in the movie The Net are indeed rare, people do need to be aware that they can easily become a victim. The ease of obtaining Social Security numbers from more than 3 billion credit solicitations a year make identity theft a fairly simple scam. Each day, more than a 1,000 people have their identities stolen by a con artist applying for credit in the victims' name. After obtaining a loan or running up credit card charges, the thief typically disappears never to be seen again, and leaving a ruined credit rating that may take years to correct.
Protect Yourself from Identity Thieves
Banks and other financial institutions work to protect the identities and privacy of their customers. Customers are constantly reminded that the slight inconvenience of being asked for identification, or having an account balance checked, may protect you and others from financial losses.
Efforts to protect yourself from identity fraud may include the following:
If your identity has been taken, you're first likely to learn about it when checks start bouncing or a collection agency begins calling. The damage isn't so much in dollars, since the financial institutions are liable for the unauthorized charges. Rather, the fallout may include a checkered credit history, which could prevent you from getting a mortgage or a job not to mention the countless phone calls and piles of paperwork you'll need to go through to correct the situation. Guarding against identity theft is much like locking the door and activating the burglar alarm when you leave your home. By and large, the crime is a low-tech operation, despite well-publicized instances of hackers breaking into websites and stealing millions of credit card numbers. Usually, someone fishes a bank statement or credit card offer out of your trash, or a dishonest employee peeks at your personnel file.
- Shred or burn financial information containing account or Social Security numbers;
- Use passwords other than maiden names;
- Don't put your Social Security number on any document unless it is legally required;
- Have your name removed form mailing lists operated by credit agencies and companies offering credit promotions;
- If you become a victim, notify the credit card company and other businesses with specific details. Also, file a police report to provide documentation of the scam.
To protect yourself, you may want to sign up for a credit monitoring service. At $40 a year, Credit Watch from Equifax is a bargain. The company scans your credit report every night and sends you an email alerting you to ay activity, such as a new credit card issued in your name or credit check by a car dealership. The price includes six full credit reports a year.
Report Identity Theft
If someone has stolen your identity, the Federal Trade Commission recommends that you take three actions immediately:
The U.S. Secret Service has jurisdiction over financial fraud cases. Although the service generally investigates cases where the dollar loss is substantial, your information may provide evidence of a larger pattern of fraud that required its involvement. Contact your local field office.
- Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus. Tell them to flag your file with a fraud alert, including a statement that creditors should call you for permission before they open any new accounts in your name.
- Contact the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Ask to speak with someone in the security or fraud department, and follow up in writing.
- File a police report. Keep a copy in case your creditors need proof of the crime.
- If, after taking all these steps, you are still having identity problems, stay alert to new instances of identity theft. Notify the company or creditor immediately, and follow up in writing. Also, contact the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which provides information on how to network with other identity theft victims. Call 619-298-33396, or visit www.privacyrights.org.
Finally, protect your identity by giving it a lower profile. For example, remove your name from junk mail and telemarketing lists by going to the Direct Marketing Association's website at www.thedma.org/consumers/privacy.html. Call 888-567-8688 to stop receiving pre-approved credit card offers.
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