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Identity Theft

Identity Theft

A.  What is identity theft?

B.  Federal and State laws

C.  Prevention – steps you can take

D.  What to do if you are a victim

A. What is identity theft?

The Federal Trade Commission defines identity theft as someone using your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security Number or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes. The FTC estimates that as many as 9 million Americans are affected each year, and the crime is growing rapidly. Anonymous business transactions, vast numbers of mail and phone solicitations and expanding electronic access to personal information provide golden opportunities for crooks to steal and misuse the identities of others. 

Stolen Social Security numbers and other identifying information can be used to ravage existing accounts and run up debt in victims’ names.  A victim often discovers the fraud only after being denied credit or being contacted by collectors because of debts about which he knew nothing. 

Some ways identity thieves operate

The old-fashioned way: They steal a purse, wallet, mail from a mailbox (bank or credit card statements, new checks mailed from a bank, pre-approved credit card offers, tax information.)

A more sophisticated method is to use a special storage device while processing a credit card transaction.

Some thieves pretend to represent a financial institutions or other company, contacting you by email or telephone because they "need"  personal information such as a social security, bank account number or credit card number (This is called "phishing"). Other thieves divert billing statements and other critical mail by filing Change of Address cards with the Post Office. These are only a few of the ways for a thief to find victims.

.B. Federal and State law.  The Federal Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act was passed in 1998.  It provides for severe penalties. Unfortunately, the number of cases is so large  that investigations and prosecutions are rare unless the loss is very large.  Many states also have identity theft laws. ,  The Alabama legislature passed the Alabama Consumer Identity Protection Act in April, 2001.  It defines different classes of the crime and provides for criminal prosecution and penalties.  It also includes some civil remedies for victims.

 The Alabama procedure for restoring a victim’s good name is available only after the thief is convicted.   Since many state law enforcement agencies are already overworked and the nature of the crime makes investigation difficult, it is likely the state law, like the federal statute, will be directly helpful to only a few consumers.  Although the Act is another good weapon in the law enforcement arsenal, restoring a victim’s good name, like avoiding victimization, will continue to depend on individual actions.

The best defense is prevention, and that falls on individuals.

C.     Prevention - some steps you can take.

      Try to maintain the greatest possible level of security over your private information.  Here are some suggestions from various business, government and consumer protection groups of specific things you can do:

1.    Do not give out identifying numbers or financial information on the phone unless you initiate the call and know the person or organization being called.  Never underestimate the persuasive skills of these crooks;  they can fool the smartest of consumers.

2.    Shred or tear into small pieces all mail solicitations, bank records or any other discarded documents that may provide information that can be used to identify you.

3.    Know the due dates  for your bills and statements.  If a regular bill or statement fails to reach you within a week of the usual time, contact the company to find out why. Thieves often divert mail to themselves to avoid alerting victims.  Review statements carefully and promptly report any problems.

4.    Opt out of receiving pre-screened credit card offers.  The three major credit bureaus use the same number: 1-888-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688).  (Experian is the only major credit bureau that goes a step further and offers removal from other lists - those used for marketing and promotional purposes.)  This is an important step!

5.    Opt out of MDV lists. Notify the Alabama Department of Motor Vehicles that you do not want information about you provided to marketing and promotional groups. The Alabama law has many loopholes but this may help.

6.  Register on the Do-Not-Registry by calling 1-888-382-

      1222, from the number you wish to register;  or register

      online at www.donotcall.gov. Registration is good for

      five years.

7.  Opt out of direct mail solicitations and e-mail lists.

To cut down on unwanted mail, write: 

DMA Choice, ,

Direct Marketing Association,

P. O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 10512    

Include the primary name, secondary names if any,         Street, City, State and Zip Code.

Add the previous address if you have been at the current one for less than five years. State that you do not wish to receive mail solicitations. You must include $1.00 with    each request. (Ceck or postal money order - NO CASH).

To remove your name from e-mail lists visit          www.dmaconsumers.org/offmaillist.html 

(This will not block spam.)

These actions will not stop all solicitations but should help. Contacts made before July of each year are the most effective because holiday advertising is being prepared by then, but requests made at any time should cut down on your mail.

8.   Periodically request a copy of your credit record.  The report will let you know who has asked for information about you recently, which can give an early warning of trouble.  Federal law allows each person to receive one free credit report from each of the three major bureaus each year. l To request reports from all three with one request,

      call 1-877-322-8228, or

      file a request online at www.AnnualCreditReports.com. (This is the only site endorsed by the Federal Trade Commission. Don't be fooled by similar names or catchy TV jingles.

9. Do not put your Social Security Number on your driver license and do not carry your SS card in your wallet.  Unfortunately, this will provide only limited benefit, since Medicare and some  private health insurers use the SSN as an identifier.  This problem has been called to the attention of the SS Administration and others. So far  the SSA has not addressed this problem, which will require major adjustments and funding. Blue Cross and several other insurers have replaced SSNs with other identifying numbers on their cards.)

10. Store new and cancelled checks in a safe place, report lost/stolen checks to your bank immediately, and carefully review every statement.

11.   The Family Protection Unit of the Alabama Attorney General's office (www.ago.state.al.us/identityrheft) offers additional suggestions, and there are excellent ideas on the web site of the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov/identitytheft)

D.  If you are a victim

If you become aware that you are or may be a victim, act immediately; it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of prompt action.  An excellent resource is the Federal Trade Commission web site (www.ftc.gov) Here are the first steps a victim should take:

1.   Contact the fraud departments of the three major credit bureaus. Tell them to flag your file with a fraud alert stating that creditors should get your permission before opening any new accounts in your name.  Ask for copies of your credit reports.  The bureaus must give you free copies if they are inaccurate because of fraud.  After a few months ask for new reports to verify corrections and changes and review for new fraudulent activity.  Call any one of the three major reporting bureaus, and follow up with a letter.

The numbers for reporting fraud to Equifax and Trans Union are different from those for requesting credit reports:

Equifax: 1-800-525-6285;

                email: www.equifax.com

                P. O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA  30374

Experian: 1-888-397-3742 (1-888-EXPERIAN);

                  email: www.experian.com

                  P. O. Box 9532, Allen, TX  75013

Trans Union: 10800-680-7289;

                        email: www.tuc.com

                         Fraud Assistance Division, P. O. Box

                        6790, Fullerton, CA  92834

Make the call first and confirm with a follow-up letter.

2. Contact all creditors with fraudulent accounts or charges in your name.  Ask for someone in the security or fraud division and report what you know.  Follow up with a letter;  list all charges that you did not make. 

3.   File a report with the police or sheriff’s department in your community or in the community where the identity theft occurred (or both).  Keep a copy.  This is proof for the creditor that you are doing what you can to apprehend the thief. 

Sometimes older persons hesitate to take this vital step because they fear the thief is a child, grandchild or other relative. That is understandable but foolish.  Failure to file a complaint does nothing to build the character of the thief, may encourage him or her to prey on others, and generally can only make a sad situation worse.

Additional Steps:

Contact the office of the Attorney General or Consumer Affairs Advocate in your state. In Alabama, contact the office of the  Alabama Attorney General

The AG's office has a very good check list for victims.  Go to

www.ago.state.al.us, click on Consumer Affairs, select topic ID Theft. The Attorney General's HotLine is 1-800-392-5658.

To request a form for filing  a complaint :

Call  1-800-392-5658  or  334-242-7334

Write:  Consumer Affairs Section

Office of the Attorney General

11 South Union Street

      Montgomery, AL 36130-0152   or

Contact the AG's office online:    

www.ago.state.al.us/consumer/howtofile/cfm

Other suggestions from the FTC are preventive as well as corrective; they are intended to return control over your financial affairs to you.  Depending on how you know or suspect a thief has obtained information, you may need  to:

  • Close bank accounts, credit card accounts, any other accounts. Set up new ones, with new PIN numbers. Do not use any part of your social security number, your birthday or any series of consecutive numbers for PINs. 
  • Get a post office box, or take mail to a collection box rather than leaving it out when you are not home.) If you leave for as much as three days, file a Hold Mail form with your letter carrier. The number for the U. S. Postal Inspector is 404-608-4500; or check  www.usps.com.
  • If you have lost your ATM card cancel it. 
  • If unauthorized calls are being made on your cell phone, contact the service provider to cancel the account and card and get new accounts. 
  • Contact check verification services:
    • TeleCheck - 1-800-710-9898
    • Certegy Inc. - 1-800-437-5120
    • International Check Services - 1-800-631-9656
  • The number for the Social Security Administration is 1-800-772-1213, or on-line: 222.ssa.gov.

In short, try to cut off every conceivable route the thief may have for reaching your assets.

Contact the FTC.  File a complaint any of three ways:

Call the Identity Theft Hotline, 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-                                                                               438-4338)

Write  Identity Theft Clearinghouse

Federal Trade Commission

600 Pennsylvania

Washington, D.C.  20580

Contact FTC online: www.consumer.gov.idtheft

The FTC also has excellent materials on prevention, steps for victims to take, and general information on this and other topics.  One helpful item is an Affidavit that you will need from time to time as you clear your credit.

  • The FTC site lists other contacts to make, such as alerting the postal service, check protection companies, passport officials, utilities and telephone/cell phone providers, and the Social Security Administration. 
  • Finally, monitor your credit report regularly. You may have to pay for reports after the first one each year. The charge is not large. Some states have additional protective laws but Alabama does not.

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