Identity theft a growing problem

The movie “Identity Thief,” out this week, sees comedian Melissa McCarthy playing crime for yuks, but it’s also giving those who know the serious side of ID theft a chance to nudge viewers in the ribs.

Firms that collect credit data, including Atlanta’s Equifax, are ready for calls from reporters.

“ID theft is a big and growing problem,” said Trey Loughran, president of the company’s Personal Information Solutions.

ID fraud was up 13 percent in the U.S. from 2010 to 2011, Loughran said. The 2012 numbers are not compiled yet, but he expects to see another jump.

Experts say the proliferation of information online and in customer databases such as those kept by online retailers is adding to the growth.

Tax return fraud is one of the quicker growing crimes, he said.

The inspector general of the Internal Revenue Service estimated last July that the government could send as much as $21 billion over the next five years to fraudsters who have used others’ identities to file for tax refunds.

Steve Fennessy, the editor of Atlanta Magazine, knows firsthand about ID theft. He has written about the Florida man who snatched his identity more than 10 years ago.

One result is that Fennessy still keeps a letter in his glove box from Florida law enforcement officials in case he gets pulled over by a policeman. The letter says he should not be confused with Brian Katacinski, the scammer who used Fennessy’s name on a fake driver’s license. Katacinski is in federal prison for snatching and abusing multiple people’s identities, but his crimes can still haunt Fennessy because Fennessy’s name is now one of Katacinski’s aliases.

“I get associated with him,” Fennessy said.

“Once you are in the [law enforcement] computer database,” he said, “it is a wormhole you can’t get out of.”

Fennessy continued: “At the end of the day, all you have is your good name, and when that is compromised, it is sort of constitutionally unnerving. You feel like there are going to be creditors that are going to be out to get you for debts you didn’t create. It feels like you are going to be affiliated with something you never did.”

Recent numbers from the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network say Georgia in 2011 had the second-highest theft of identities per capita. Florida was No. 1.

“I am not sure why Georgia would have such a high rate relative to the rest of the country and why so much focuses on government fraud,” Loughran said.

He said consumers should protect their Social Security numbers and be ready to question why anyone would need that.

Here are more tips for protecting your identity. They come from TrustedID, a pay-for-service identity protection firm, and others:
•Secure smartphones, computers and tablets with passwords, location software and the ability to erase the data if one is lost or stolen.
•Erase data when upgrading or getting rid of old devices. Use disk wipe services for laptops, and install wiping software on your smartphone to remove any stored data.
•Put your name on do-not-mail lists by visiting www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0262-stopping-unsolicited-mail-phone-calls-and-email. Or pay a service such as TrustedID to clean up your online existence.
•Restrict your info on social media such as Facebook by checking your privacy settings at least once a month.
•Don’t give out your ZIP code to retailers at the register. Knowing your ZIP code allows them to easily find your entire address so they can send you unwanted mail, such as credit card applications, which can be stolen.
•Put a Google Alert on your name. You can monitor search engine results and learn what others can find out about you. If you discover public information that could damage your reputation or puts your privacy at risk, contact the source and ask them to remove the information.
•Create complex passwords. You can reduce risk by creating strong, complex passwords that are difficult to hack, even for a professional.

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