Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft - (winter 2006)
In 1999, Judith Collins, a criminal justice at Michigan State University, was the victim of identity theft. The Michigan police were very sympathetic to her plight but powerless to help her. Unable to get any satisfaction, she spent the next six months on-line tracking her perpetrators down until she found them. This was the beginning of the MSU Identity Theft Crime and Research Lab, which since 2000, has trained more than 700 state and federal law enforcement officers on how to investigate identity theft, provide free advocacy for victims and consults with numerous businesses on identity-theft solutions.
Identity theft occurs if your personal information is stolen, whether it is used to commit a crime or not. Identity theft crimes commonly include the use of your personal information, such as your name, address, Social Security number, credit card number or mother's maiden name, to obtain access to your accounts or to set up new accounts in your name.
The most common ways that identity theft occurs include: a stolen wallet, posing as a legitimate company and contacting you via e-mail to remedy a problem with an account, the person facilitating the use of you credit card captures your numbers in a data storage device in a practice known as "skimming," or obtaining information through your trash, by entering your home or by diverting your mail to collect bank statements or tax information.
Controlling the flow and access of your personal information requires some due diligence. "Identity theft will begin to decline when businesses begin implanting security practices and when individuals take personal responsibility for protecting their information," says Collins.
Here are some ideas that should help you protect yourself from identity theft:
- Destroy your paper trail. Cross-shred personal statements that contain financial information and all A TM and credit card receipts.
- Guard your Social Security number. Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Do not put your Social Security number on checks or documents.
- Be suspicious. If you receive a phone call or e-mail you did not initiate requesting personal information, do not divulge it. Then, call your credit card company and identify the contact.
- Safeguard your mother's maiden name. While your mother's maiden is not needed by any financial institution, it may be used as a password to verify personal information. Financial institutions will accept alternatives, use those instead.
- Be random. Your PIN numbers or access passwords should contain unique letters and numbers and digits and you should change them every year. People tend to choose letters and numbers which have significant meaning to them and that in itself makes you vulnerable. You should never use birth dates, anniversaries, addresses, pet names or nicknames
- Monitor your credit card reports. It is a very good to periodically review your credit reports to look for suspicious inquires or accounts you did not open.
There are three reporting agencies: Equifax (800-525-6286), Experian (888-Experian) and TransUnion (800-680-7289)
If you are a victim of identity theft, you must act quickly to protect your interest.
- You must file. a police report and save the complaint number.
- You must contact the fraud bureau of the three major credit bureaus.
- Immediately close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
- You must file a complaint with the Federal Trade commission (877-IDTHEFT) , which maintains a database of identity theft cases for use by law enforcement agencies.
If you suspect that your Social Security number has been used, you must contact the Social Security Administration (800-269¬0271) and notify them.
You can contact the Identity Theft Crime and Research Lab at Michigan State (517¬432-7170) for free advocacy assistance in the process or reclaiming your stolen identity.
James Routhier is a Senior Vice-President and Investment Officer at Wachovia Securities.
Jim can be contacted at (973-254-5114) or e-mail at email me