Identity theft on the increase, putting all consumers at risk for worst kind of credit fraud

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Losing your identity to a thief can happen in the blink of an eye, but the consequences can last a lifetime.

A stolen wallet, a charge to a credit card, an order for tickets to the opera, using your cell phone and even paying your income taxes can open the door to potential thieves.

Any transfer of your most personal information, particularly Social Security number and bank and credit card account numbers, makes a consumer vulnerable to such misuse by another person of those most intimate numbers.

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So what is a person to do to protect against that kind of fraud? In 2002, one of the largest cases of identity theft brought the arrest of three men in New York who were charged with stealing credit histories of more than 30,000 people, with victims in all 50 states.

Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore on his official Web site offers these tips for minimizing risk of identity theft:

4Before you reveal any information, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others.

4Pay attention to billing cycles. Contact creditors if bills do not arrive on time.

4Guard mail from theft by promptly removing mail from your mailbox after it arrives.

4Put passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information such as your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or your phone numbers.

4Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you’ll actually need and use.

4Do not give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you are sure of the person you’re dealing with.

4Keep items with personal information in a safe place. And remember that placing papers with personal information in a trash bin is risky.

4Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year. In doing that, you may catch mistakes or fraud before there is any big impact on your credit rating or personal finances.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission maintains an informative, user-friendly Web site on identity theft at There, you can read more about preventing such crime as well as about what to do if you become a victim.

Many people experience the alarming loss of a wallet, knowing immediately to call all accounts that might have been on cards or papers in the wallet and cancel them. Does that step take care of potential identity theft, however?

&uot;Your wallet can provide a criminal with ready access to sensitive information that can be used to steal your identity, drain bank accounts and make it difficult for you to obtain credit in the future,&uot; said Pete Hirsch, a fraud examiner with the FDIC Division of Supervision in Washington, quoted in an article on the FTC site.

Loss of a wallet is an obvious open door to losing one’s identity. Many victims never know how the theft occurred. And this type of crime is the fastest growing of all crimes in the United States, with more than 700,000 people affected by such attacks each year.

The theft can begin with what seems an innocent e-mail, such as this one, which the FTC describes as full of half-truths and misinformation:

&uot;Just wanted to let everyone know who hasn’t already heard, the four major credit bureaus in the U.S. will be allowed, starting July 1, to release your credit info, mailing addresses, phone numbers Š to anyone who requests it. If you would like to ‘opt out’ of this release of information, you can call 1-888-567-8688. It only takes a couple of minutes to do, and you can take care of anyone else in the household while making only one call. You’ll just need their social security number.&uot;

This kind of e-mail should send up red flags. So should an e-mail that appears to be from an Internet Service Provider saying that your account information needs to be updated or that the credit card you signed up with is invalid or expired and the information needs to be reentered to keep you account active. &uot;Do not respond without checking with your ISP first,&uot; the FTC warns. It could be a scam.

What do identity thieves do with your personal information to wreck your finances and credit ratings? The FTC describes several possibilities:

The may open a new credit card account in your name, having stolen your Social Security number, birth date and other pertinent information. They charge things to the card but do not pay the bills. It is your credit report that takes the hit.

They may change the mailing address on your credit card by calling the bank or other institution and pretending to be you. Charges are sent to the new address. It may be months or years before you know what has happened.

They may open a cellular phone service in your name and use the service without paying for it.

They may open a bank account and write checks for funds that do not exist.

Getting out of the mess created by identity theft is not easy. The office of Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore outlines the three steps to take immediately when you think identity theft has occurred:

4Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus. Request a &uot;fraud alert&uot; be placed in your file. At the same time, order copies of your credit reports so you can review them carefully to look for other possible fraud against your accounts.

4Contact the creditors for any accounts that may have been targeted by the thieves. Be sure to include companies such as utilities; speak with someone in the security department. Follow up with a letter.

4File a report with the police in the location where the fraud took place. Get a copy of the report, which can help you later in dealing with creditors involved in the fraudulent charges.

The Federal Trade Commission acts as a nationwide clearing house for reports on identity theft. Assistance there does not include filing criminal charges; but the FTC can direct victims in ways to solve the problems resulting from the fraud. Victims can call the FTC at 1-877-438-4338.

The three major credit bureaus are:

Equifax:; to order your report, call 800-525-6285; or write P.O. Box 740241 in Atlanta, GA 30374-0241. To report fraud, call 800-525-6285 and write to P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241.

Experian: For your report, call 888-397-3742; or write to P.O. Box 2104, Allen, TX 75013. To report fraud, call 888-397-3742 and write to P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013.

Trans Union: For a copy of your report, call 800-916-8800; or write to P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022; to report fraud, call 800-680-7289 and write to Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634.