Identity Theft

Char Telkamp

Char Telkamp

Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America. In 1999, 13 percent of Americans had been victimized by identity theft. Victims can expect to spend upwards of $1,000 and 200 hours of work to clear their good name and credit rating.

What is identity theft? When one person steals another’s personal information and uses it fraudulently. In 1998, identity theft became a federal crime. Forty-seven states have also passed anti-identity-theft laws. Identity theft is an easy crime to commit and difficult to investigate and prosecute.

Common techniques for collecting personal information include stealing wallets, handbags, and mail (especially pre-approved credit card offers). Dumpster diving (going through a business or individual’s trash) is another popular method where thieves are looking for discarded mail, personnel files and documents.

Unscrupulous employees of retail stores, gas stations, restaurants and so forth can sell or use personal information from credit cards, drivers licenses and so on. Other methods to gather personal information include theft from mailboxes and calling potential victims posing as a legitimate figure seeking information. The most important and frequently used information identity thieves can obtain is a social security number.

Make no mistake: An identity thief can ruin your life. Thieves, who may work individually or as part of large international crime rings, obtain identifying information about their victims in many ways.

They may be roommates, relatives, friends, estranged spouses or household workers with ready access to their victims’ personal papers. Sometimes they even switch the addresses of victims to their own post office boxes and wait for the credit applications and card renewals to come to them.

They also get essential information – including the quality of prospective victims’ credit – by illegally accessing the huge databases of the three credit reporting bureaus. All have thousands of computer terminals in places like car dealerships or real estate agencies. They can shop for victims at will.

Identity thieves can even photocopy your vital credit information legally at the local courthouse. If you’ve been divorced, the transcripts of your case, including the financial and credit account information you divulged as part of the proceedings, as well as your Social Security number, are part of the public record.

Finding victims through the Internet

The Internet provides another opportunity for identity thieves to glean personal information. Thieves can design very official-looking e-mail messages that imply they are from a major company and successfully obtain personal information from trusting individuals.

Once the crooks have some of your personal information, they can start applying for credit cards in your name, often giving an address that is different from yours. Identity thieves may buy a car or rent an apartment in your name. Some may even commit crimes in your name.

Many identity theft victims have been denied student loans, mortgages, credit accounts and even jobs. Some wrongly have had their telephone service disconnected and their driver’s licenses suspended or been harassed by collection agencies.

The sad part is, it is next to impossible to stop a determined identity thief. Who is going to apprehend him? Occasionally law enforcement agencies, including the Secret Service, bust up identity theft crime rings that involve many victims and millions of dollars. But they don’t chase down single crooks that commit “victimless” crimes.

While victims may not be liable for the credit bills an identity thief runs up, they still are compelled to spend time, effort and money to clear up the mess.

Looking out for yourself

If you become an identity fraud victim, you take three steps immediately:

1. Report the identity theft to local law enforcement authorities, including the police, postal inspectors and Secret Service.

2. Contact all banks and others where your name has been used fraudulently, sending a copy of a police report or other documentation to show that you are a fraud victim.

3. Call the fraud departments of the three major credit bureaus to get copies of your credit report and to have fraud flags and statements added to your report saying that all potential creditors should contact you to verify credit applications.

If the first three steps fail to resolve the problem, we would add a fourth: Call a lawyer. Credit issuers and reporting agencies are sometimes slow in responding to complaints from consumers. The threat of lawsuits can provide some incentive.

You ultimately cannot prevent identity theft from happening to yourself, but you can reduce the odds.