Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How Identity Theft Can Affect You

How Identity Theft Can Affect You
By: Ellen Fogarty Vice President Security Office at Pioneer Savings Bank

Identity thieves frequently open new accounts in your name. They often apply for new credit cards using information, make charges, and leave the bills unpaid. It is also common for them to set up telephone or utility service in your name and not pay for it. Some victims have found that identity thieves applied for loans, apartments, and mortgages, or print counterfeit checks in a victim's name.

Thieves also often access your existing accounts. They may take money from your bank accounts, make charges on your credit cards, and use your checks and credit to make down payments for cars, furniture, and other expensive items. They may even file for government benefits including unemployment insurance and tax refunds.

Four out of five victims have no idea how an identity thief obtained their personal information. Among those who think they know what happened, many believe the identity theft occurred when their purse of wallet was stolen or lost. Thieves also steal identities from the trash, and it can occur at home, at work, or at a business.

Group identity theft has become a major problem for consumers. A thief gains access to a place that keeps records for many people. Targets have included stores, fitness centers, car dealers, schools, hospitals, and even credit bureaus. Thieves may either use the stolen identities themselves or sell them to other criminals.

"Pretexting" is a method of identity theft that is on the rise. The identity thief poses as a legitimate representative of a survey firm, bank, Internet service provider, employer, landlord, or even a government agency. The thief contacts you through the mail, telephone, or e-mail, and attempts to get you to reveal your information, usually by asking you to "verify" some data.

Victims of identity theft often find that someone they know has committed the crime. Roommates, hired help, and landlords all have access to private information. Identity theft within families is also fairly common.

Identity theft often goes undetected. Within a month of being committed, half of the crimes still remain unnoticed. One in ten stays hidden for two or more years. Identity thieves may change "your" address on an account so that you won't ever receive the bills with the fraudulent charges on them. They will often pay the minimum balances on accounts they have opened, so as to avoid calling attention to the account and having it cut off.

Steps to Prevent Fraud

In the home, keep personal information safe, especially if you have roommates or are having any work done in your home. Don't keep Personal Identification Numbers (PIN's) near your checkbook, ATM card, or debit card. Shred any papers with confidential information before you throw them out, even the junk mail. Anything with an account number can be used in identity theft.

Since many identity thefts are traced to having a purse or wallet stolen, carry as few cards with identification and personal information as possible. Don't take your social security number, and bring as few credit cards as you can. You should be wary of any mail, telephone, or Internet request for information, it could be "pretexting". Unless you initiated the contact with a business, don't give out any confidential information such as your credit card number, social security number, PIN, birth date, or even your mother's maiden name. Check your banking and credit statements soon after you receive them and make sure there is no unexplained activity. Keep track of when in the month each of your bills usually arrives. If a bill does not arrive on time, call the company to make sure no changes have been made to your account. Be particularly wary of giving out your social security number. Few institutions, businesses granting you credit, employers filling out tax forms for you or government agencies, have any reasonable cause to know your social security number. However, a business may refuse to serve you if you do not give them the information they request. It is up to you if you still want to do business with the company.

Many people don't realize they are victims of identity theft until long after the initial crime occurred. To stop the crimes as soon as possible make sure you carefully check you credit reports regularly. Contact each of the three major credit reporting agencies to order a copy of your credit report at least once each year. Consider canceling credit cards you haven't used in a long time. You can also consider adding a "fraud alert" to make it harder for thieves to open new accounts without your knowledge. With a fraud alert, the credit agency has to call you to confirm any request it receives to open a new account in your name. If you decide you want this service, just contact the credit reporting agencies. The three agencies to contact are as follows: Equifax - ..:NAMESPACE PREFIX = SKYPE /> (800) 525-6285 , Experian (800) 397-3742 , TransUnion

(800) 680-7289 .

Reduce the circulation of your information through the mail. Stop receiving credit offers by calling 1-888-5OPTOUT . You can also reduce direct mail marketing and telemarketing by contacting the Direct Marketing Association.

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