Don’t Be an Identity Theft Victim

Shakespeare got it right: “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing. ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he that filches from me my good name robs me … And makes me poor indeed” (Othello).

Oh, for the good old days when stealing your wallet meant losing 20 bucks. Lose your wallet today, and there is a good chance you will not only lose whatever cash you were carrying, but also your reputation and even your life—at least on paper. Identity theft is reaching ridiculous levels, and the odds are that sooner or later you too will be violated.

I speak from experience. Although a somewhat minor incident, some petty thief recently got his hands on my credit card number and used it to purchase several hundred dollars’ worth of software through the Internet. Fortunately, American Express said it would reimburse me for the fraud.

But many people do not get off so easily. About 3.5 percent of U.S. adults—that’s 8.3 million people—were victims of id theft in 2005 alone, according to the Federal Trade Commission “2006 Identity Theft Survey Report.” id theft not only ruins reputations, but bilks billions of dollars from victims ($15 billion in 2005; $47 billion in 2003), and costs society millions more in unneccessary man hours associated with tracking down and apprehending these blights to society.

In one notorious case, a criminal spent over $100,000 on someone else’s credit cards. He also qualified for and received a federal loan, bought more than one house, purchased multiple motorcycles, and even handguns in his victim’s name. Then, to add insult to injury, he taunted his victim—before filing for bankruptcy in the victim’s name. Needless to say, the victim’s credit rating and finances were trashed for years. That’s the power people can obtain over you if they get your identification numbers.

The ingenuity of fraudsters can be surprising. One recent scam entails an e-mail “alerting” customers to the fact that their credit card accounts have been violated. Accordingly, the con artists say, the credit card companies are initiating a new upgraded identity protection program and customers need to contact them, through a number they provide, to initiate the program. It is all very official looking and sounding, with logos, copyright notifications, and e-mail addresses that contain the issuing credit card names. It is also very deadly, and if personal information is given out, victims are taken to the cleaners.

Probably one of the more effective scams of late is the sending of fake irs tax refund letters notifying you that you have been charged too much in taxes and are due an additional refund—the catch being that you are asked to give all kinds of personal information—information the irs should already have!

The lesson? Don’t lose or casually give out your numbers. When I say numbers, I mean anything that can be used to identify you: Social Security number, driver’s license number, passport number, bank account numbers, checks, credit card number, pin numbers, telephone or online banking passwords, mother’s maiden name, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, etc. Even old phone and utility bills should be destroyed before being thrown out.

These are the numbers that banks, employers, credit card issuers, loan officers, car salesmen, merchants, and society in general use to confirm that you are who you say you are. So they carry a lot of power.

It is simply astounding what a determined thief can do with just one piece of id.

Several weeks ago I attended an Oklahoma Bankers Association Fraud Division presentation on identity fraud by Elaine Dodd, the former director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. What I heard left me astonished as to the ease in which a person’s identity can be stolen—and the ease in which money can be borrowed and spent in your name if a crook gets your info. So I thought I would depart from my regular column format and pass on some of the valuable information I gleaned from that meeting and from information provided by the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Response Center.

Skilled thieves can steal your personal information in several ways, and none of them takes much effort.

One of the simplest ways is by rummaging through your trash to find bills or other documents with your personal information. According to Elaine Dodd, a good paper shredder is one of the best investments you can make. Decent shredders can be purchased for less than $40 at Wal-Mart or Office Depot.

Skimming is a method used to steal credit/debit card numbers. Thieves attach special devices onto machines that process your cards. A common trick is to place a card reader that attaches onto the card readers on gas pumps. Make sure not to use any card reader that looks like it is an add-on to the original machinery.

“Phishing” artists are especially devious. These perps pretend to be financial institutions and send spam or pop-up messages through your e-mail to get you to reveal your personal information. Oftentimes they will even create websites that mimic your legitimate financial institution’s site in appearance. Always make sure you are using the correct Web address, and remember: Your financial institution will never contact you asking for your personal information—it already has it. Never give out information when you have been contacted first. If you want to confirm that you are actually talking to your bank, take the caller’s name, then look up your financial institution’s phone number (do not use any phone numbers they give you) and call him or her back. Another common scam is for a caller to claim that you won a lottery, and then ask you to provide your personal information, or pay a small fee to claim the prize. Do not be fooled. What are the odds you won a sweepstakes that you never entered in the first place? According to Dodd, the third-largest source of foreign income for Nigeria is gained through similar phishing activities.

Another way identity theft occurs is through change-of-address forms. Thieves find your personal information in your trash and then submit a “change of address” form to get access to your personal documents through the mail.

But the most common way identity theft occurs is through old-fashioned stealing. Never keep your Social Security card or pin numbers in your wallet. Protect your mail, use a safe box to protect your most important personal information, and find out from your employer what kind of safeguards are in place to protect your info. And when writing checks, Dodd says to make sure to use a good black gel pen with ink that is not susceptible to washing.

Essentially, reducing the risk of identity theft boils down to three steps.

First, use deterrence strategies. Shred all paperwork containing personal information before disposal. Protect your Social Security number and only give it out when absolutely necessary. Don’t give out personal information on the phone or Internet, or through the mail unless you trust who you are dealing with. Do not respond to unsolicited e-mails and no not click on websites or download material from sites you do not trust. Keep your anti-virus and firewall information up to date. Also remember to avoid obvious passwords like your birth date or your mother’s maiden name and keep your personal information in a secure place at home.

Second, detect suspicious activity by monitoring your financial accounts and billing statements. Signs you could have trouble include: bills that do not arrive as expected, credit card charges that you do not recognize, unexplained arrivals of new credit cards or account statements, denials of credit for no apparent reason, calls from collectors for purchases you didn’t make. Individuals should also monitor their credit report at least once every year, says Dodd. A free credit report can be obtained from the major credit rating agencies by visiting www.AnnualCreditReport.com.

Third, defend yourself as quickly as possible if you suspect fraudulent activity. Place a “Fraud Alert” on your credit reports and review the reports carefully. Close any accounts that have been tampered with or established fraudulently. And make sure you contact the security departments of each company where fraud took place. Keep copies of documents and records of your conversations about the theft. You will also want to file a police report, as this will provide help with creditors who may want proof of the crime.

The U.S. Department of Justice provides much more detailed information on how to deter, detect and defend yourself against id thieves.

The point is that with a little research you can easily reduce the risk of becoming an identity theft casualty. However, humanly speaking, there is only so much you can do. There is no magic bullet that will eliminate the risk of id theft.

But there is an additional layer of protection you should consider: the protection provided by the Creator of the universe. That involves living according to the principles outlined in the Bible. Scripture is full of examples of the blessings and protection that flow from following God’s laws, as well as the curses that come from disobedience. For information on how to live this way of life and come under the protection of God and receive the blessings that result from obedience to Him, read No Freedom Without Law and The Ten Commandments. •

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