Guarding your privacy
We all work hard to protect our valuables. We buy insurance policies to protect our homes from theft or fire and we invest in safes to store jewelry, old coins and birth certificates. But most of us are not working hard enough to protect one of the most valuable things we own-our good name.
Identity theft is on the rise nationwide and is helped along by lenders and creditors who are willing to grant thousands of dollars in credit in mere minutes with little or no proof of identity. In today's electronic age, an ID thief can easily, and sometimes legally, tap into your personal information with just a click of the computer mouse. A few bits of personal data re a a gold mine for information crooks looking to steal your identity. An impostor using personal information like your address, birthdate, Social Security or credit card number, can acquire phony credit cards, private phone lines, siphon money from your checking or savings account, get a mortgage and even give you a criminal record.
Identity thieves may rummage through trash searching for discarded account statements, pre-approved credit card offers or credit receipts; search public records for your address, and even rob your mailbox. IT may take a few months, but eventually you will start getting calls from creditors demanding payment for charges that you never made. A strange bank may call you about an overdrawn account in you name-an account you never opened. Identity theft takes months for you to detect, and sometimes years or longer to unravel.
What is Personal Information and Identity Theft?
Today there is a threat to our privacy in the network of commercial databases that keep personal information about each one of us.
The sale, collection, and integration of personal information about consumers are new industries in the information age. There are currently over 1,000 private companies keeping comprehensive databases about individual consumers. This is a ten-fold increase in just five years.
These companies do not engage in the "mass marketing" of products or the researching of general demographic groups. Rather, they focus on gathering information as much information as possible about specific people to engage in what is sometimes called "personalization" or "personal marketing." Technology now allows these businesses to cheaply gather information about consumers, and then sort and categorize the data, sometimes called "data mining," to isolate specific people for "target marketing" purposes.
The array of information available is limited only by the technology itself. Each electronically recorded transaction-from you use of credit, debit or ATM cards to your payment of mortgage or student loans-provides a glimpse into your private life. When layered on top of one another, these pieces of information create a complete picture of you as an individual.
Here are a few examples of the personal information trade:
* One company maintains a database that operates twenty-four hours a day, gathering and processing information on 95% of American households. For a price, it will sort information based on income, lifestyle, or even a profile of "ethnics who may speak their native language but do not think in that manner."
* Another company offers lists of people with particular medical conditions.
* A hospital sells the names of its patients who may be eligible for Social Security insurance to a lawyer.
In 1999, electronic research companies were selling unlisted phone numbers for $49, social security numbers for $49, and bank balances for $45. This personal data is merged into a consumer tracking and information system that becomes larger every day it is sold to whomever may be interested in buying. Each piece of information gathered, stored, and sorted by these large databases represents and erosion of your right to privacy.
The personal information trade also enables a special kind of telemarketing called pre-acquired account telemarketing. Pre-acquired account telemarketing occurs when a telemarketer calls you with the ability to charge your credit card or bank account already in their hand. Unlike most telemarketers, these companies have acquired the ability to charge your account for the product that they are selling before they call you. A typical telemarketing sale, not involving pre-acquired accounts, requires that you provide a credit card or other account number to the telemarketer, or that you send a check or sign a contract in a later transaction.
With a pre-acquired account telemarketing the telemarketer controls the method by which you provide "consent" to the transaction, making the determination whether you have actually consented to the deal. This puts the telemarketer in a privileged position, such that he or she can charge your bank account or credit card in situations where you would never have voluntarily provided your account number to the caller.
Identity theft occurs in a variety of ways and has different labels. Two key variations are commonly referred to by law enforcement as "true name" or "true party frauds and "account takeover" frauds. With "true name" or "true party" fraud, the thief pretends to be you. The thief uses pieces of your identity to obtain new credit cards from banks and retailers, open checking and savings accounts, apply for loans, establish accounts with utility companies, or rent an apartment. In an "account takeover" fraud, the thief steals your money and/or assets. The thief obtains enough personal information about you to gain access to existing credit or bank accounts.
Thieves impersonating you contact creditors and banks to order additional cards on the account and have the cards sent to their address instead of yours. The thief may also file a change of address with the postal service to divert any newly ordered credit cards or checks into his or her hands. Identity theft is usually more complex than an ordinary case of credit card fraud. Armed with just one or two pieces of identifying information, such as your birth date or address, the thief can assume your financial identity, access your existing accounts, and obtain a wide range of services and benefits in you name.
Thieves may be friends, relatives, co-workers, employees at companies or organizations with personal information about you in their databases, and worst of all, total strangers, who gain access to you personal information through any number of means.
Creditworthy consumers with high incomes are the preferred prey of identity thieves, but almost any of us is a potential victim. It is impossible for you to totally eliminate the possibility of falling prey to identity fraud. To lessen the chance of becoming a victim keep a tight rein on you personal information, get off telemarketing lists, stop businesses from sharing your private information, dispose of sensitive documents safely, and closely monitor your finances.
Legal Protections Against Identity Theft
Under federal law, a person who knowingly transfers, possesses, or uses an identity that is not the person's own, with the intent to commit, aid or abet any unlawful activity, is guilty of felony identity theft. Though laws exist to help prosecute identity theft, prevention is better.
* The Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act establishes procedures for correcting mistakes on your credit report and requires that your record only be provided for legitimate business purposes.
* The Fair Credit Billing Act establishes procedures for resolving billing errors on your credit card accounts. The act provides the most important protection for victims of identity theft. If you notify your card issuer at the address given for "billing inquires" within 60 days after you receiver a bill with an error, the act allows you to dispute the erroneous charge.
* The Truth in Lending Act limits your liability for unauthorized credit card charges on lost or stolen cards to $50 per account. If you notify your card issuer before the thief's unauthorized use, you liability will be nothing. Therefore, if a company tries to sell you credit card "protection" against unauthorized charges, you don't need it. The federal law already protects you from significant monetary liability.
* The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act prohibits debt collectors from using unfair or deceptive practices to collect overdue bills that your creditor has forwarded for collection.
* The Electronic Funds Transfer Act provides protection for all transactions using your debit card or other electronic means to debit or credit an account. It also limits your liability to $500 for unauthorized electronic fund transfers.
Your Personal Information is Not as Safe as You Think
Today, personal financial information is widely accessible through a variety of sources. Identity thieves legally obtain much of the information they need. Often, additional information is obtained illegally, but at low risk and low cost.
The three major credit bureaus-Experian, Equifax and Trans Union-and other credit reporting agencies produce reports that include a wealth of personal information about you including your date of birth, addresses, Social Security number, credit account information, public records and employment data.
Credit reports are easy for unauthorized people to get. All a thief needs is you name, Social Security number and a current or previous address.
Today, the Social Security number is the most frequently used record
keeping number in the
A credit bureau is a clearinghouse for credit history information. Creditors provide the information about how customers pay their bills. The bureaus turn this data into a "file" on each consumer. In return, creditors can obtain credit reports about consumers who wish to open accounts with their business or organizations.
The report contains you name, Social Security number, address, credit payment status and employment history. A credit report also contains legal information including liens, bankruptcy and other matters of public record.
Anyone with a "legitimate business purpose" can gain access to your credit history, including: those considering granting you credit, landlords, insurance companies, employers and potential employers, and companies with which you have a credit account.
Certain pieces of information cannot be included in your credit report. Such information consists of medical information (unless you give you consent, negative information, including a bankruptcy that is more than 10 years old, and debts that are more than seven years old. Information about your age, marital status, or race cannot be included in your report if requested by a prospective employer.
It is recommended that you look at your credit report every year and before making a major purchase. You usually can be charged up to $8 for a copy of your report. You are entitled to one free copy of your report each year if (1) you are unemployed and plan to look for a job within 60 days, (2) you are on welfare, or (3) your report is inaccurate because of fraud. In addition there is no charge for the report if a company takes adverse action against you, such as denying your application for credit, insurance or employment and you request your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action. To take a look at your file, contact on or more of the three national credit bureaus:
Phone: (800) 685-1111
Phone: (888) 397-3742
Phone: (800) 916-8800
Your Social Security Statement provides both a statement of past earnings and an estimate of future benefits you will receive from Social Security. The Social Security Administration recommends that you check you Social Security earnings at least once every three years. After that it becomes more difficult to trace the earnings. A Social Security Statement is available upon request. To get a statement, call the Social Security Administration's toll-free number at 1-800-772-1213.
Businesses and Other Organizations With Information About You
It is not just the government or creditors that collect and distribute information about you and your buying practices. Banks, credit unions, insurance companies, charities and others have personal information about you that you may not want other people to know. You should compile a list of the businesses and organizations that have information about you. When forming new relationships with an organization or company ask what will be done with your information and who will have access to it. Knowing who has what information about you allows you some control over how that information is used.
Identity thieves range from old-fashioned pickpockets to sophisticated theft rings with equipment that can re-encode the magnetic strip on the back of counterfeit or stolen credit cards. An identity thief does not need your signature, fingerprints, photo, personal identification numbers, mother's maiden name, or even the expiration date on your credit card. In this electronic era, your "identity" begins and ends with your Social Security number.
Once an identity thief has your Social Security number, name and address the thief can divert your mail to a post office box or another address. By filing a temporary change-of-address form with the post office, an identity thief can re-route your mail to his or her mail drop. Your mail will resumes at your address before you catch on. If you mail contains one of the 2.7 billion pre-approved credit card solicitations sent out each year in the United States, the thief can steal your identity and create a new one.
Limiting access to your information can reduce the risk of possible identity theft. Follow these suggested steps to better protect your private data.
You may remove your name or "opt out," from marketing or promotional lists maintained by credit bureaus, direct marketers, and other organizations with which you have a relationship.
X Credit Bureaus. The credit bureaus offer a toll-free number to "opt out" of having pre-approved credit offers sent to you for two years. When credit offers are thrown in the trash, they are a potential target for thieves. Call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688) for more information. You can also notify the three major credit bureaus that you do not want personal information about you shared for promotional purposes. Write your own letter, or use the sample letter to limit the amount of information credit bureaus will share about you. Send your letter to the following addresses:
Options Consumer Opt-Out Marketing List Opt Out
Ø Direct Marketers. The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) is a trade association for companies involved in direct and database marketing. The DMA offers free "preference services" that allow you to reduce the amount of direct-mail marketing, telemarketing, and email marketing you receive from its member companies. When you register with these free services, the DMA places your name on a "delete" file made available to its member-marketers. Your "opt out" request is good for five years (one year for email). To have your name and address deleted from DMA members' direct mail, telemarketing and email lists, write your own request, or use the sample letter to the following addresses:
Direct-Mail Marketing: Telemarketing: Email:
Direct Marketing Association Direct Marketing Association http://www.e-mps.org/
Mail Preference Service Telephone Preference Service
Federal law forbids a telemarketer to call you once you have asked to be put on the telemarketer's "do not call" list. A telemarketer who ignores you request can be held for up to $500 in damages per call and $1500 per willful violation. Thus, if you do not want to be called in the future, you should tell the telemarketer that you want to be placed on that telemarketer's "do not call" list and that you now you are entitled under federal law to $500 per call after your request.
Take an inventory of charities, companies and other organizations with which you do business. Write to these organizations telling them not to sell or give out your name. If you think your name has been sold, send a letter to the company or organization and complain. Ask for the list of businesses or charities that bought your name and information. Then, write to these organizations and ask them to put you on their "do not mail" and "do not sell" lists.
When you pay bills, don't leave the envelopes containing your checks at your home mailbox for the postal carrier to collect. If stolen, you checks can provide valuable information to the thief or be altered and cashed. Your credit card payments, if acquired by a thief, contain all the information needed to steal you identity. Also, consider installing a locked mailbox at your residence to reduce the possibility of mail fraud.
Check for fraudulent use of your credit accounts. The most important step to safeguarding your identity is to monitor your credit card statements and credit report.
The internet puts vast information at your fingertips. With a click of a mouse, it lets you buy an airline ticket, book a hotel, send flowers to a friend, or purchase your favorite stock. Before you shop, consider these safety tips.
* Use a secure browser.
* Shop with companies you know.
* Make sure you are at the correct web site.
* Disclose only necessary personal information.
* Pay by credit or charge card. If you pay by credit or charge card online, your transaction will be protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act.
* Pay you bills online.
* Keep a record of your purchase order and confirmation number.
* Opt out of information sharing.
* Keep you passwords private.
The harm to victims of identity theft can be significant and long lasting. The perpetrators of these crimes severely damage you good name and your credit rating. Unfortunately, it is then up to you to clean up the mess. Until you do, you may be denied loans, a mortgage, security clearances, promotions, and employment. Act quickly and assertively to minimize the damage. When you deal with the authorities and financial institutions, keep a detailed log of all conversations, including dates, names, and phone numbers. Not the time spent and any expenses incurred. Confirm conversations in writing. Send all correspondence by certified mail and maintain copies of all letters and documents.
In the absence of a cure-all, acting quickly is the best way to minimize the damage and get you back on the right track.
Request that a fraud alert be placed in your credit reports and that a note be included it inform potential creditors that you should be contacted before any additional accounts are opened.
Immediately contact the security or fraud department of any companies that maintain a credit or bank account for you. Request that the creditors make your accounts accessible only through use of a password. Banks and creditors may ask you to complete and notarize fraud affidavits, which can be costly. If this is the case, as k for the bank or creditor to pay the notary fee, because the law does not require that you provide one. A written statement from you and supporting documentation should be sufficient.
Report the crime to your local police or sheriff as soon as you are aware of the theft. A law enforcement record of the incident is important because it will allow you to present your creditors and banks with proof of the crime. Also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and ask for a complaint number for your records, the FC monitors identity fraud and educates consumers about the crime.
Keep detailed records of all interactions and contacts you have with businesses, creditors, and governmental agencies while you are reclaiming you identity. Detailed records will be important later if you choose to bring an action in court to recover damages.
If the thief steals you checks or sets up fraudulent bank accounts in your name, report it to the six major check verifications companies. Ask for stop payments on any outstanding checks that you dispute and cancel or obtain new numbers for you checking and saving accounts.
Chexsystems 1-800-428-9623 12005 Ford Road #600
NPC Check Services, Inc. 1-800-631-9656 90 Riverdale
Complete this checklist to deal with the most common forms of identity theft.
Check for fraudulent change of address requests and mail fraud.
If you suspect that an identity thief has file a change of address
request for you with the post office, notify the U.S. Postal Inspector.
Mail theft is a felony in the
Review you monthly bills to ensure that you have not incurred any fraudulent charges. Be sure to contact each company and report the fraud. Then follow up all contacts in writing and maintain a copy for your records.
If you think someone may have misused your Social Security number contact the Social Security Administration and request a copy of your Social Security Statement. You should follow up with the Social Security Administration if you find any fraudulent use of your number that changes your earnings and benefit eligibility. The Social Security Administration will change your number only if you fit specific criteria.
If you are a victim of identity theft and have a passport, notify the passport office in writing.
Sometimes victims of identity theft are wrongfully accused of crimes committed by the impostor. If a civil judgment has been entered against you for actions taken by the identity thief, contact the court where the judgment was entered and report that you have been a victim of identity theft. If you are wrongfully prosecuted for criminal charges, contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Request information from the FBI about how to clear your name.
If you find that there has been unauthorized access or use of your credit report, contact the Federal Trade Commission to determine your rights under the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.
Federal Trace Commission (FTC)
Stand up for your rights. You cannot be held responsible for checks cashed or any bills that are the result of the theft of your identity. You should not live under the fear of legal action being brought against you. Your credit rating should not be affected permanently. Don't let businesses, collection agencies or banks pressure you into paying any bill that is not your responsibility. Let them know you are willing to cooperate to resolve the situation, but don't let anyone take advantage of you.
Organizations you might want to send these letters to include:
* Your Bank and Other Financial Institutions
* Your Credit Card Companies
* Your Mortgage Company
* The Direct Marketing Association
* Your Telephone Company
* Your Charities
* Your Department Stores and Other Merchants
To Whom It May Concern:
RE: Opt Out of Disclosure of My Personal Information
I hereby opt out of the sale, rental, distribution, exchange or other disclosure of any and all personal information you have about me. This includes but is not limited to my name, home address and phone, work address and phone, email addresses, social security number, driver's license number, financial account and access numbers and my transaction history with you.
Please promptly confirm in writing that you will not disclose my personal information without my express consent.
Full Name: ___________________________ Signature: ________________________
Address: ___________________________ Date: ________________________