Bogus camera purchase
sharpens focus on identity theft
By Joe Volz /Copley News Service
My wife, Kate, first discovered that she was a victim of identity theft when American Express called her to confirm that she really wanted to charge $899 for a camera at a New Jersey shopping mall.
Surprised, Kate explained that not only did she not want a new camera, she wasn't even in New Jersey. She was at home in Washington, D.C.
The American Express representative then explained that he had called because several charges had recently been rung up on her corporate card. They included an expensive man's leather jacket and a cruise for $4,500.
Kate was thunderstruck.
Naturally, American Express refused to authorize the camera charge and canceled Kate's credit card to prevent any further fraud. (Her new card arrived within a few days.) After an investigation, the company voided the other charges as well.
Kate considered herself fortunate that she came out of a potentially expensive situation so relatively easily.
Other people are not so lucky.
Today, identity theft is big business. Losses to businesses total $50 billion annually, the Federal Trade Commission reports. In just five years, close to 30 million Americans have had their identities stolen. When this happens, they face confusion, hours of wasted time, and potentially big bucks.
Some innocent victims have lost thousands of dollars and had their credit ratings destroyed before they became aware that others were using their numbers without authorization.
One person whose identity was stolen reported that it took him five years before his credit rating was corrected. Though he didn't lose much financially, in terms of aggravation he found it a nightmare.
HOW THIEVES GET YOUR NUMBERS
You become an identity theft victim when someone pretends to be you, using your Social Security number, your credit cards or your bank account number to borrow money, open a new credit card account or charge thousands of dollars to buy vacations, household goods, appliances or clothes.
Identity thieves are extremely inventive in getting your personal information. Rings of identity thieves often go to city dumps and comb through trash to get receipts with names and financial information.
E-mail fishing expeditions are another way. Pretending to be eBay users or businesses you actually have purchased goods from, the crooks e-mail you, saying that a question about your account has come up and they just want to make sure your information is correct.
Identity thieves also steal your purse or wallet, take information from your mailbox such as bank statements, and ask for your credit report by pretending to be your employer or landlord.
Some clever thieves stand close to you at automated teller machines or phone booths to get your ATM card personal identification number.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO THWART ID THEFT
1. Never give out your Social Security number unless it's absolutely required, for example by the federal or state government.
2. Don't have your Social Security number printed on your checks. It's not necessary and it's nobody's business.
3. Ask businesses if you can skip filling in your Social Security number on their application forms. Many forms include this routinely. A well-known video rental chain, for instance, has a space for your number but when customers question the need to fill it in, managers usually waive it.
Here are a few other steps you can take:
Always properly dispose of papers with personal information. Make sure you tear up charge receipts, bank statements, expired credit cards and credit offers.
Reduce the number of cards you carry. You rarely need to carry more than a single credit card and ATM card.
Unless you are leaving the country, don't carry your Social Security number, birth certificate or passport in your purse or wallet.
Watch out for other people standing nearby when using your PIN at a bank. Don't throw your receipt in ATM wastebaskets.
Don't give your credit card or bank account number over the phone unless you make the call and know the business.
Finally, in order to protect yourself and your credit rating, make sure you check your credit report at least once a year and correct any errors. If you do this, you won't be caught by surprise when you apply for a mortgage or a new car payment and are turned down because of incorrect information on your credit report.
For further information on identity theft, click on to www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
Another resource from the federal government is www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/idtheft.htm.