When my husband and I were in the process of purchasing our home we received a disturbing call from our mortgage broker. He called to tell us that our CREDIT REPORT had come back with some derogatory information. There was a string of unpaid credit card bills and other monies owed that turned up on our report. The mortgage broker suspected FRAUD, because he also saw on the same report we were paying our other accounts on time and in full. It turned out that a former neighbor had stolen my identity. By the time the police caught up with her she had racked up two thousand dollars in credit card charges, rented an apartment, had a phone installed and acquired utility services, all under my name. We were alleviated from the responsibility of the credit card charges after proving that I did not make them. It took three months to clear the mess up. Because we had a credit report done for our loan, we found out about the fraud and were able to stop things before they got out of hand. If we had not found out, we would have had a much bigger problem on our hands.
Identity theft is a crime that has become rampant in the United States. Between November of 1999 and June of 2001, the FTC reported that 69,370 people were victims of identity fraud. The majority of the victims were between the ages of 20 and 49. The states with the highest number of incidences were California, New York, Texas and Florida, in that order. Identity theft can happen to ANYONE. Many law enforcement officials believe that due to the clandestine nature of this crime, most people are at risk of becoming a victim without even knowing it. There are, however, some PRECAUTIONS you can take to minimize your chances of being a target.
YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER (SSN)
This is a key piece of information to identity theft. Don't give out your social security number unless it is appropriate, like to an employer or for obtaining credit. Many companies ask for your social security number for IDENTIFICATION purposes. That is not lawful or necessary. Refuse to give out your SSN in circumstances like this and offer other kinds of identifiers instead. Many of the cards you carry could have your social security number on them. Take a look at your Student I.D., work I.D., military I.D. and your health insurance card. Try to have an arbitrary ID number assigned to you in place of your SSN. Never have your social Security number printed on your checks. And always be sure to SHRED any document you throw away that has your SSN on it -- no matter what.
KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
Before giving out any personal information, find out how it will be used and if it will be SHARED with others. Ask each company about its privacy policies and information practices. Be especially careful with your bank -- find out the exact circumstances under which your bank would provide your account information to a third party. When filling out a loan or credit application, ask how the company DISPOSES of them. Make sure they are shredding your financial statements rather than just throwing them in the trash.
BEING SMART WITH BANK CARDS
Don't keep your ATM's personal identification number in your wallet. When using an ATM machine, take note of those around you and be careful not to let anyone see you enter your password. And always be sure to take your RECEIPT with you -- don't leave it by the ATM machine. Don't use easy to discover passwords or PIN numbers such as birthdays, telephone numbers or addresses. And carefully check bank STATEMENTS as soon as they come in and dispute any unauthorized purchases immediately. Your liability increases if you don't report debit card fraud immediately. Most people know that with credit card fraud, their liability is capped at $50. However, with debit cards, the amount of your liability depends on how quickly you report the fraud.
Never leave your purse or wallet in the car, even if it is hidden from sight. And keep a MINIMUM number of credit cards in your wallet -- and try to avoid carrying your checkbook with you unless you need it for a specific purchase that day. If your wallet should be lost or stolen, REPORT it immediately to your bank and credit card companies. Protect your credit rating by calling the credit bureaus to request that a fraud alert be put on your file.
PROTECT YOUR PLASTIC
After you make a purchase, don't put your credit card RECEIPTS in the same bag with the merchandise. If the bag is stolen the thief could use the receipt to purchase more merchandise somewhere else. Be very careful when ordering merchandise over the internet. Order from reputable companies that use secure servers. Always save your credit card receipts to match against your monthly STATEMENT so you can easily recognize any purchases you didn't make -- dispute any unauthorized purchases immediately. Pay attention to your billing cycles, and follow up with creditors if your bills do not arrive on time. And keep track of when your cards expire to make sure your new card arrives in the mail. Contact your credit card companies if you do not receive your new or renewed credit cards.
Keep items with personal information -- social security numbers, vital records, financial statements -- in a safe place, such as a LOCKED box, safe, or safe deposit box. When you no longer need the information, SHRED it. Do the same to pre-approved credit card offers rather then tossing them in the trash for someone to retrieve.
When mailing applications or paperwork with personal information put them in a U.S. postal box or leave then with a postal carrier. Don't drop paid bills in a PUBLIC mailbox -- take them to the post office to be mailed. Install a locked mailbox at your office or home to keep people from snatching your mail. Never write your social security number, account number or any other personal information on a check or outside of an envelope. And be sure to contact the POST OFFICE immediately if your mail suddenly stops coming.
KEEP AN EYE OUT
Order a copy of your CREDIT REPORT from the three major credit reporting agencies every year. Make sure the information in them is accurate and includes only those activities you've authorized:
Trans Union (1-800-888-4213 -- http://www.tuc.com)
And don't toss all your monthly bills right away -- review your phone bills and cellular phone bills each moth for any unauthorized use. You will want to keep statements for one year as a record of activity. And compare your ATM receipts and cashed checks with your periodic bank statements to check for unauthorized transfers or charges. If you do find fraudulent activity on any accounts, go to the FTC's web site (listed at the end of this article) and get a copy of their ID theft AFFIDAVIT to report any unauthorized accounts that are opened in your name.
WHEN THE WORST HAPPENS
Your diligence in these matters will help to diminish the amount of liability and damage you will incur should you become a victim of identity theft. If you do find that you have become a victim of identity theft, please visit the websites listed below for help. Until there are better safeguards in place to keep personal information out of the hands of thieves, we all need to be on our guard. Remember, it can happen to anyone.
Home Organization and Life Management expert Martha Matthews publishes the “Christian Homemaking” newsletter. If you’ve been searching for a Christian approach to organizing your home and life, sign up for her FREE newsletter at