Q: I was at a recent senior function and wanted to thank the more than 100 people who told me that they read (and many added enjoyed) the column. In response to number of requests made by those I talked with, this is an update of a recent column on identity theft.
A: Several sources have estimated that identity theft, in one form or another, affected as many as seven million Americans in 2003, primarily in the areas of credit card, bank, employment, phone, utilities, and benefit fraud. So the problem is more widespread than many of us realize. Financial exposure is usually limited if a credit card is involved. But for other fraudulent areas, it is up to the "victim" to prove that he or she was not responsible. Often a person feels like the "Lone Ranger" without anyone to effectively help.
How can someone steal an identity? Traditionally, a thief would obtain someoneÕs birth certificate and then begin reconstructing a personÕs legal documents from it. 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, expiration date, and the CW2 security number (on the back).
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 by hacking into his or her computer, or surfing through secondary sources such as retail store records, or even just doing a computer search. Knowing my friends, especially with their smirks of condescension 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 the submission of 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, a driverÕs license, Wills, etc.
But do not go overboard. I have had clients refuse to give me their social security numbers when I was just 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 in this day and age a person cannot realistically refuse to unilaterally stop giving out his or her social security number.
If you become a victim, you must be proactive and not assume that the authorities will take care of things. Here you have to accept the reality that you are responsible for the "damages" until you prove otherwise. But what can you do?
Check credit card statements routinely. In Colorado, we are entitled to a free credit 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.
If you become a victim, alert the police where your I.D was stolen and fill out the required paperwork. Obtain several copies of the report to show your position in that the obligation is not your own. If you are having trouble with the police, telephone the Attorney GeneralÕs office. 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.
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.
If you are a victim remember it will not be easy and you basically have to fight for yourself because normally no one else will do so. Being forewarned will hopefully make you forearmed.