by Deputy Robert Bosworth
WHAT IS IDENTITY THEFT?
Identity theft is not a joke! ID theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the USA. Recent statistics show that approximately 500,000 people per year are falling victim to a new breed of criminal known as “identity thieves.”
These crooks are out there in both the real and virtual worlds looking for valuable pieces of personal information that belong to someone else. This can be credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and any other form of identification.
With a minimal amount of valid identifying information a skilled thief can quickly assume an individual’s identity to conduct numerous crimes including opening a new bank account, opening credit card accounts, obtaining loans, getting cash advances, establishing phone service, defrauding insurance companies and obtaining employment. The thief may even rent an apartment or buy a car.
SOME INFORMATION ABOUT THIS CRIME
There has been a 1400 percent increase nationally since 1997
Anyone, dead or alive, can be a victim
A small, local police agency had four officers become victimized in one year
1 in 3 people will become a victim of identity theft
Disabled or elderly persons are often targets as they can be incapacitated, they often have good credit and are sometimes attended to by a large number of people (attendants, medical staff, drivers, service personnel)
HOW IS INFORMATION STOLEN?
It’s easier than you might imagine. Some of the most common methods are:
Thieves count on the fact that most people (and businesses) throw out unshredded documents that are filled with personal data. These might be bills, receipts, bank statements, pre-approved credit card applications, etc. The thieves rummage through dumpsters, trash cans and recycle bins looking for pieces of personal information that they can use of sell.
With this method there are a few different methods to steal someone’s mail to access personal data. One way is to steal from unlocked or unattended mailboxes. These might contain pre-approved credit card applications, bank statements, tax forms or checks. Remember that driver’s licenses, passports, birth/death certificates, credit cards, paychecks and other vital and personal information is mailed every day. Another way is to take mail that has been left for the mail carrier to pick up. This mail might contain payment checks (and accompanying payment stubs, credit applications or other personal information.
A dishonest employee with access to personnel records, payroll information, insurance files, account numbers and/or sales records can wreak havoc, especially if that employee can get their hands on Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and/or birth dates. Identity theft can also occur in situations where a dishonest employee has access to credit-reporting data like that available in realty offices, banks, auto dealerships, etc. Once the information is obtained the employee typically ends up selling it or using it to commit fraud or theft.
The Internet has opened new doors for identity thieves. On the simplest level, they have quick and easy access to identifying data that consumers tend to share through phone listings, directories, memberships, etc. Thieves can also purchase sensitive personal information about someone (name, address, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, birth date, etc.) from an online broker.
DIRECT ACCESS TO PERSONAL DOCUMENTS IN THE HOME
Unfortunately, there are identity thieves who can gain legitimate access into someone’s home through household work, babysitting, healthcare, roommates, friends of roommates, etc. In this instance the thief has access to large amounts of personal data.
Stolen purses and wallets usually contain plenty of bankcards, and other personal identification. A thief can have a field day using this information to obtain credit under the victim’s name or sell the information to an organized crime ring.
Many identity theft victims have been taken in by an individual who posed as someone who had a legitimate or legal reason to access the victim’s personal information.
WHAT A VICTIM OF IDENTITY THEFT FACES
In most cases of identity theft it takes months before the victim is aware of any wrongdoing. The victim typically learns of the crime after he or she receives a collection letter or is turned down for a loan due to a negative credit rating. When it gets to this point the victim faces numerous obstacles and must spend hours sorting through the nightmare of reclaiming their identity. In a study conducted by the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, it was found that the average identity theft victim spends about 175 hours over a two year period actively trying to straighten out financial matters and to get their life back together.
TIPS FOR PREVENTION
Don’t carry your Social Security card (or number) with you
Be careful with receipts
Do not leave outgoing mail in your home mailbox (not only can it be stolen but it signals burglars that your are not home)
Review all statements (bank, credit card, etc.)
Be aware of when your statements arrive
Request a credit report and your Social Security benefits and earnings statement every year
Don’t place your driver’s license number or Social Security number on your checks
Have new checks mailed to your bank, NOT YOUR HOME
Do not release personal information over the phone
Remove your name from Direct Marketing Association lists
Consider an unlisted phone number
Do not use professional titles (Dr., MD, Attorney)
Do not carry your PIN with you
STEPS THAT A VICTIM OF IDENTITY THEFT CAN TAKE
1. Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus (see RESOURCES) to:
Report the theft and request a “fraud alert”
This ensures that the victim is contacted before any new accounts are opened or an existing account is changed (a “fraud block” prevents any activity and the victim will not be able to do anything with their own accounts-the “fraud alert” is a much better option)
Request copies of credit reports
Credit bureaus are required to provide free copies of credit reports to victims of identity theft.
2. Contact the fraud departments of all creditors
This would be credit card issuers, phone companies, utilities, banks, lenders, etc.
This is very important for credit card users, as consumer protection laws require cardholders to submit disputes in writing
3. File a complaint with the federal Trade Commission
4. File a report with the US Postal Inspection Service Office
Much of identity theft occurs via the mail system and the USPIS handles this type of crime frequently. They are an excellent resource.
5. Contact the nearest Social Security Administration office to report the use of a Social Security number
6. Contact your LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY and file a report
The three credit reporting agencies are:
1-800-685-1111 (Report order)
EXPERIAN (Formerly TRW)
1-888-397-3742 (report order)
1-800-916-8800 (report order)
FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION
IDENTITY THEFT RESOURCE CENTER
IDENTITY THEFT PREVENTION AND SURVIVAL
BUREAU OF CONSUMER AFFAIRS
UNITED STATES SECRET SERVICE
UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE (GENERAL INFO)