Identity theft hits close to home
Suzanne Zemelman Gellman, MS, JD
Financial Education Specialist
there is no full-proof way to prevent identity theft. The best way to protect
yourself is to make it difficult for identity thieves to get your personal and
How thieves get your information
Identity thieves can get personal information by stealing a wallet or purse; stealing mail out of mailboxes; “dumpster diving” for personal information on discarded, unshredded documents; or getting information over the Internet by posing as legitimate businesses, such as your bank.
BUT, don’t overlook the identity thief who may be closer to home. When at work, do you leave personal documents around your desk? At home, do you leave mail lying around? Do you leave important papers on a desk—in plain view—or in an unlocked, but visible, file cabinet? Identity thieves can work in your office; they can be service people who are in and out of your home; they can be your friends or your children’s friends; or, unfortunately, they can even be family members.
In a 2003 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study of identity fraud victims, 25 percent of respondents said they knew who had committed the crime, and 50 percent of those turned out to be relatives, friends or neighbors. These figures are likely low because cases often don’t get reported to the FTC or local police when an identity thief is a family member or close friend.
How thieves use your information
Identity thieves use your personal information in many ways. They may establish phone or wireless service in your name, apply for credit cards and loans in your name (even car and home loans), make charges on current credit cards, and they may withdraw money from your bank accounts by forging checks, making electronic transfers, or using your ATM/debit card.
More recently, identity thieves have been known to get medical care using your personal information and even your insurance information. According to the FTC, of the reports of identity theft in Missouri to the Federal Trade Commission in 2005, 28 percent were credit card ID theft fraud, 23 percent were phone or ID theft fraud, and 19 percent were bank ID theft fraud.
If a friend or family member obtains your personal information and makes charges on a current account, or withdraws money from your bank account, you will be required to assist in their prosecution to have the charges to your account reversed, or to have the money reinstated to your bank account. Many people do not want to assist in prosecuting family members, so they will have to absorb losses from identity theft themselves.
Here are a few examples of identity theft by family and friends: 1) sibling purchased a car in his brother’s name; 2) soon-to-be ex-spouse stole wife’s and son’s information and played games with their respective bank accounts; 3) son regularly took mother’s ATM card at night and withdrew thousands of dollars; 4) grown daughter charged her mother’s credit card; 5) family friend opened cell phone in friend’s name; 6) co-worker copied credit card number and code, then made credit card charges.
How to protect yourself
Protecting your credit is crucial. Your credit report impacts your ability to get housing, insurance, loans, or even a job. Victims of identity theft can spend as long as two years and $1400 to clean up their credit identity.
Minimize your risk by making it difficult for an identity thief to get your information.
· Protect your social security number.
· Guard incoming and outgoing mail. Don’t mail bills or documents containing personal information from your mailbox. Shred credit card offers, bills, old
bank statements, credit card checks, or any personal information.
· Opt out of pre-approved credit offers. Consumer reporting agencies offer a toll-free number: 1-888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688).
· Order copies of your free credit report from all three major consumer reporting agencies at least once every 12 months. Review your report for information that is incorrect or not yours. Visit www.annualcreditreport.com .
· Keep personal information out of sight, even at home. Don’t leave mail, checks or personal information in public traffic areas.
If possible, lock up personal information and financial documents. Do NOT share account PIN numbers or passwords with anyone—even a spouse—unless the person shares the account. It is better to take preventative measures than to have to decide “to prosecute or not to prosecute.”
If you are a victim of identity theft
· Notify the fraud department of one of the three national credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on your credit report. The agency will contact the other bureaus.
· File a police report with your local police.
· File a report with the FTC.
· Close accounts you know have been used for fraud or believe are at risk for fraud.
· Notify creditors that your identity has been stolen.
· Visit Websites with information on dealing with ID Theft: www.consumer.gov/idtheft/ and www.idtheftcenter.org/index.shtml