Guarding your identity

Gene Walden
9/8/2007 – If you become the victim of identity theft — and the chances of that are becoming more likely every year — you could face a seemingly endless series of intrusions into your personal financial affairs, as one Maple Grove woman recently learned.
What’s worse, it’s a crime that law enforcement officials often are unwilling to or unable to resolve.

The Maple Grove woman (who requested anonymity) has spent the past month and a half trying to keep identity thieves from taking over her life. The first sign that her identity had been stolen came July 29, when American Express called her to thank her for applying for a Gold Card. She never applied for that credit card.

The next day a woman in Memphis tried to buy a house through Wells Fargo, using her name for the loan.

Then Macy’s called to thank her for opening a new account. Then she learned that a Shop.com account had been opened in her name and that someone had purchased jewelry on the account.

A few days later, she got a letter from a mortgage company indicating that she had asked to have double payments taken out of her checking account to pay for a mortgage. In all, the identity thieves have tried to open more than 20 retail and charge accounts in her name.

Keeping up with the series of identity breaches has become so cumbersome that the woman enlisted the help of her mother so that she could continue to put in a full day at the office. “It becomes a full-time job,” her mother said. “It’s a nightmare. It is so stressful it makes you sick. And trying to get help is like banging your head against a wall.”

The women have contacted the local police, the FBI, the three leading credit agencies (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax), the Federal Trade Commission, the Minnesota attorney general, their insurance company, the Social Security Administration and the Memphis Police Department — the city where the breaches have all taken place — and no one seems willing to or able to help them.

“We have the information on where the jewelry was shipped in Memphis — including the perpetrator’s address and phone number — and we have access to the surveillance video from the jewelry store and yet the police still decline to investigate,” explained the woman’s mother.

They have placed credit alerts with the three credit agencies, but new credit card and retail accounts continue to be opened in the woman’s name.

Safeguarding your identity

You may not be able to prevent identity theft — it can happen anytime, anywhere to anybody — but there are some new services being offered that will help you protect yourself in case you become victimized.

The Travelers Companies Inc., the St. Paul-based insurance firm, recently began offering a policy designed to help victims of identity theft review and monitor credit reports, place fraud alerts with credit reporting agencies and write letters to creditors to correct inaccuracies resulting from fraud.

The policy can be an add-on to homeowners and renters insurance for an additional $25 a year. Besides the assistance in resolving identity theft issues, the policy also offers victims reimbursement of as much as $25,000 in lost wages, attorney fees, notary fees and charges for certified mail.

Scott Harstad, a Minnetonka-based financial adviser, recommends a policy called Identity Theft Shield, offered through Prepaid Legal, that provides monthly credit report monitoring — with alerts if any illegal activity is detected. If your identity is stolen, the service uses an agency to fix the problem for you. The cost is $12.95 per month per family.

Mike Miller, director of Plymouth-based Integra Shield Financial Group, recommends a service known as LifeLock, which offers a number of services to prevent identity theft, including placing fraud alerts with credit bureaus every 90 days on your behalf, getting your name removed from preapproved credit card and junk mail lists, and ordering free credit reports from the three agencies for you each year.

If your identity is stolen, LifeLock will spend as much as $1 million to help you recover your money and your good name. That might include hiring lawyers, investigators, accountants and case managers, as well as reimbursing you for money that you’ve lost because of identity theft. The cost is $10 per month per person.

“From what I’ve seen,” Miller said, “LifeLock offers the strongest guarantee. A lot of the things they do, you could do yourself, such as ordering credit reports and getting your name taken off of junk mail lists. But, if you do have your identity stolen, they can help you resolve the problem.

“The important thing,” Miller added, “is that you continue to monitor your financial accounts, watch your credit card statements and avoid putting personal information in the trash. And, of course, never give out your personal information to anyone unless you’re the one who initiated the contact.”

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