Protect Yourself against Identification Theft

By Bernstein, Jodie | USA TODAY, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Protect Yourself against Identification Theft


Bernstein, Jodie, USA TODAY


"It can take a considerable amount of time, and sometimes money, to get all your credit accounts straightened out once an ID thief has struck."

IN THE COURSE of a busy day, you may write a check at the grocery store, charge tickets to a ballgame, rent a car, mail your tax returns, call home on your cell phone, order new checks, or apply for a credit card. Chances are you don't give these everyday transactions a second thought--but someone else may. The 1990s spawned a new variety of crooks called identity thieves, and your everyday transactions are their stock in trade.

Many of your transactions require you to share personal information: your bank and credit card account numbers; income; Social Security number (SSN); and name, address, and phone numbers. Con artists are hijacking this personal information to open new charge accounts, order merchandise, and/or borrow money. You probably won't know that you are a victim until the hijackers fail to pay the bills or repay the loans, and collection agencies begin dunning you to pay accounts you didn't even know you had.

The problem is big, and getting bigger. The numbers tell the story. Trans Union, one of the nation's major credit reporting agencies, reported that calls to its fraud line increased from 35,000 in 1992 to more than 500,000 in 1997. The U.S. Secret Service made nearly 9,500 ID theft-related arrests in 1997 involving losses of $745,000,000. MasterCard reported that, in 1997, 96% of its fraud losses of $407,000,000 involved ID theft. In 1999, the Social Security Administration received nearly 39,000 complaints about the misuse of Social Security numbers.

At the same time, consumer concerns with ID theft is soaring. The Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Hotline and Clearinghouse have received more than 16,000 calls and letters since they opened for business in November, 1999. It is anticipated that call volume will eventually grow to 200,000 a year. Tens of thousands of consumers have accessed the FTC's identity theft website--www.consumengov/idtheft--since its launch in September, 1999. More consumers are asking for information from the FTC about identity theft than any other subject.

Observers in both law enforcement and security note several reasons for the increase in ID theft. Criminals are using real names and credit card numbers in their fraud attempts instead of phony names and credit card or Social Security numbers. That creates real victims. There are more transactions taking place over the phone and the Internet, which makes it more difficult to verify the identity of an individual. Moreover, while the Internet, computers, and other technological changes aren't necessarily responsible for ID theft, it is a good bet that they are contributing to the problem by allowing a great deal of information to be disseminated widely and quickly.

Still, the majority of ID theft appears to happen in low-tech or mundane ways. Consider the family member, co-worker, ex-spouse, or acquaintance who has access to someone's personal information and uses it to open new accounts in that person's name. Or consider the store employee who may inappropriately collect information on customers. Even large-scale, highly organized ID theft rings have been known to rely on this low-tech method. That was the case when a crime ring bought car rental agreements from a clerk at a car rental agency. The customers' personal information in the agreements was used to open bank accounts, get credit cards, and obtain lines of credit--all in the customers' names.

ID thieves use a variety of ways to get your personal information:

* Stealing wallets and purses with identification and credit and bank cards

* Pilfering mail, including bank and credit card statements, preapproved credit offers, telephone calling cards, and tax information

* Completing a change of address form to divert mail to another location

* Rummaging through trash for personal data in a practice known as "dumpster diving"

* Fraudulently obtaining a credit report by posing as a landlord, employer, or someone else who may have a legitimate need for--and a legal right to--the information

* Getting business or personnel records at work

* Finding personal information in your home

* Using personal information you share on the Internet

* Purchasing personal data from "inside" sources--for example, an identity thief may pay a store employee for information about you that appears on an application for goods, services, or credit. …

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