A: I keep hearing about identity theft. Should I be concerned and if yes, what can I do to protect myself?
Q: I am not an expert in this area but I will respond in general. Several sources have estimated that identity theft, in one form or another, affected as many as seven million Americans in 2003. So the problem is more widespread than many of us realize.
How can someone steal an identity? Traditionally, a thief would obtain someoneÕs birth certificate and then begin reconstructing a personÕs legal documents from there. But laws and restrictions over the last few decades have made this starting source more difficult to obtain.
Gaining access to credit card information is another traditional area that has served as a stepping stone, not only to exploit the card but to expand and to steal identities. Exploring this area will be left for another time, but needless to say guard your credit card number and expiration date.
Another method of identity theft is a bit more troubling to me. Now I am a computer dinosaur but some of my "whiz-bang" computer guru friends say that there are people who can find out everything about anyone. Since my friends normally had a bit of a glint in their eyes when they related this to me, I tend to believe them.
But the normal way that identity theft happens is by gaining access to a social security number. From that one piece of data, everything else can be discovered or reconstructed, which then permits submitting credit applications, accessing credit information, etc.
So how can someone protect himself or herself? First, be restrictive on disclosing your social security number. If an application is being filled out, even in a medical setting, ask if that information is necessary. Next, stop displaying your number so prominently. I still see a personÕs number being used on things like checks and a driverÕs license.
But do not go overboard. I have had clients refuse to give me their social security numbers when I was trying to do such things as transferring securities or submit tax information for them. Yes, if disclosed, an employee or even someone going through the trash can come across this information but a person cannot just refuse never to use is or her social security number in this day and age.
If you become a victim, you must be proactive and not assume that the authorities will take care of things. Here you have to operate under the reality that you are responsible for the "damages" until you prove otherwise.
Check credit reports routinely. In Colorado, we are entitled to a free report each year. To order a report call the following numbers: Equifax (800) 685- 1111; Experian (888) 397-3742; and TransUnion (800) 888-4213. Thus, unusual activity can be spotted.
Alert the police and fill out the required paperwork. Contact the Federal Trade Commission to lodge an affidavit with them so police nationwide have your information available. Next contact each credit reporting agency and ask that a false credit alert be placed on your report Š Equifax (800) 525-6285; Experian (888) 397-3742; and TransUnion (800) 680-7289. Also alert Social Security (800) 269-0271.
Do obtain and have ready notarized ID Theft Affidavits for submission when dealing with others. Out of space but not out of additional information, but maybe a sequel in the future can supplement this column. Being forewarned will hopefully make you forearmed.