How to Foil Identity
by William J. Lynott
identity thieves are looking for you.
They love professionals and small-business
owners because they make such profitable victims. If they catch
up with you, they could destroy your personal financial standing—even
Like all predators, identity
thieves stalk their targets, strike without warning and then disappear
into the night with their bounty. Their attacks produce delayed
reactions. It may be months, even years, before their victims
become aware of their plight. Then, the painful road to financial
recovery can take many more months, or years, to travel. The ultimate
cost to the victims and their families often proves to be a financial
and emotional catastrophe.
These criminals would like to
make you their next victim, and national statistics suggest that
they have a good chance of doing so. According to the latest government
figures, identity theft is now America’s fastest-growing
crime. According to a Federal Trade Commission report, almost
10 million Americans fell victim to identity thieves in 2003 (the
last year for which figures are available).
thieves don’t have to be smart
Unfortunately, identity theft
is an easy crime to commit. Using personal information about you,
the thief assumes your identity, obtains false ID, and sets out
to purchase huge amounts of merchandise in your name. It wasn’t
you who bought all those products and services—tens of thousands,
perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars worth—but now it’s
up to you to prove that. And that job often turns out to be far
more difficult than you could ever imagine.
Jan Jacobs, of Burlington, Vermont,
is still struggling to repair the damage caused when her identity
was stolen. “My first hint of trouble came in the form of
a letter from a credit-card company saying that they had been
trying to reach me by telephone,” says Jacobs, a tent-company
employee. “It turned out that someone was attempting to
open a new credit card in my name. Until then, I had no idea that
I had been victimized.”
Jacobs took corrective action
immediately. “I called the credit bureaus and asked them
to put a fraud alert on my accounts, spent two hours on a consumer
hotline trying to find out what to do next, and launched myself
on what seems to be an endless route of tedious paperwork and
She feels that she’s making
progress in getting her name cleared, but was discouraged recently
when she ran into trouble trying to get a car loan.
John T. Stevens, Jr., of Maryland,
provides an even scarier example of the devastation wreaked by
identity thieves. Stevens was at his Maryland home on a day he
remembers well. The phone rang. When he picked it up, his nightmare
The call was from an investigator
for NationsBank asking why Stevens was “delinquent”
on payments for a $27,000 Jeep Cherokee, bought in Dallas a year
“I don’t have a
Jeep Cherokee,” Stevens protested. “And I haven’t
set foot in Texas in over 30 years.” True, but his name
was on the contract, and so was his Social Security number.
Soon thereafter, Stevens and
his wife learned that someone had bought four more cars and other
items worth more than $113,000 in their names. Their excellent
credit had been destroyed. “After a lifetime of integrity,”
says Stevens, “I was being essentially accused of embezzlement
and treated like a deadbeat.”
It took three years of paperwork
and $6,000 in legal fees for Stevens to clear up the mess. In
the meantime, he was denied a loan to build a vacation home, harassed
by debt collectors, and forced to pay cash for everything he bought.
The crowning blow came when their home was put under surveillance
by investigators looking for the missing Jeep.
Other identity-theft victims
have had their drivers’ licenses suspended, been turned
down for jobs, even jailed for offenses committed by total strangers.
You may already be
The FTC reports that many victims
don’t discover their plight for more than a year, while
some don’t for as long as five years.
What To Do If
You Become a Victim of Identity Theft
• If you learn that your identity
has been stolen, you must act quickly. Start by calling
the police and filing a crime report. You’ll need
that to attach to letters you’ll send to banks and
• File a complaint with the FTC by contacting their
Identity Theft Hotline: (877) 438-4338; Identity Theft Clearinghouse,
Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington,
DC 20580. For online help, log on to www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
• Contact the fraud departments of one of the three
major credit agencies (see box, “Credit Reporting
Agencies”) and report that your identity has been
stolen (It’s no longer necessary to call all three).
Ask them to place a fraud alert in your file.
• Contact the security departments of any creditors
or financial institutions where your accounts may have been
compromised. Close those accounts and apply for new ones.
Put new passwords on any new accounts you open.
• You may want to run a background check on yourself,
since crimes committed in your name will wreak havoc on
your credit standing. You can run a check on yourself at
www.PrivacyScan.com for $40.
— William J. Lynott
Jeanine Guilfoyle, an office
worker in Bergen County, New Jersey, became a victim of identity
theft nearly two years ago. She says she will never forget the
“I received letters from
several department stores. When I opened them, I found new credit
cards with my name on them that I had not applied for. When I
called to cancel the cards, I was told they had already been maxed
out. Apparently the thieves applied for instant credit at the
stores and immediately spent the limit.
Guilfoyle says that she is still
paying the price for her identity theft. “I had to call
each of the stores’ credit departments, call the credit
bureaus, get a new driver’s license, and contact Social
Security. It took months of paperwork, phone calls and correspondence.
I finally got things straightened out, but not before I was stressed
to the point that I broke down.”
How can this happen? How can
a criminal you have probably never met assume your identity and
cause you so much grief?
The magic key that allows a
thief to open the door to your life is probably somewhere in your
purse or wallet right now. It’s your Social Security number.
Of all the tools coveted by
identity thieves, including drivers’ licenses and credit
cards, your Social Security number is the most sought-after prize.
It’s astonishingly simple to steal a person’s identity
starting with nothing more than those nine digits. With that information,
the thief can easily apply for and obtain credit cards and drivers’
licenses in the victim’s name.
P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
To order credit reports: (800) 685-1111
To report fraud:
P.O. Box 2104,
Allen, TX 75013-2104
To order credit reports: (888) 397-3742
To report fraud:
760 Sproul Rd.
P.O. Box 390,
Springfield, PA 19064-0390
To order credit reports:
To report fraud:
Modern technology, the Internet,
and our ability to gather and store huge amounts of personal data
on individuals have all contributed to the evolution of identity
In the latest variation of identity
theft, a technique known as phishing is rapidly becoming a major
threat to consumers. To avoid becoming a victim, watch out for
e-mails designed to look like messages from legitimate companies
and government agencies. These messages often provide direct links
to Web sites that have been expertly designed to look like legitimate
company sites. This is where you must be especially vigilant.
These counterfeit Web sites not only look like the real thing,
they often make use of legitimate logos and trademarks.
Using a ploy such as “updating
our records,” e-mail predators usually ask for sensitive
information such as Social Security number, credit card numbers,
even mother’s maiden name. No legitimate company or agency
will ever ask you to send that kind of personal information to
them in an e-mail. If you respond to such a request, you almost
surely will be targeted as an identity-theft victim.
Experts suggest that you never
click on a link to a Web site that has been sent to you by e-mail.
Instead, type in the known correct address directly into your
The best solution: hit the delete
key, call the company directly, or forward the message to the
Federal Trade Commission (email@example.com).
Perhaps the same kind of technology
that has helped to make identity theft a major national problem
will eventually help us to find a solution. In the meantime, take
the most important step needed to keep yourself out of that kind
of trouble. Get in the habit of protecting your Social Security
number and other personal information as if your financial life
depends on it. In a very real sense, it does.
steps to protecting
The Federal Trade Commission
(FTC) offers these tips:
1. Give your Social Security number
only when legally necessary. Some experts
suggest that you refuse to divulge your Social Security
number to anyone other than govern ment agencies and companies
such as banks, brokerage houses and employers. (These companies
are required to report their dealings with you to the federal
government and must have your Social Security number to
2. Order a copy of your credit report
from the three credit-reporting agencies every year (see
box, “Credit Reporting Agencies”). Make sure
they are accurate and include only those activities you’ve
authorized. You can also sign up online with credit-report
companies, which will send you an email notification if
any new accounts are opened in your name.
3. Pay close attention to your billing
cycles. Follow up with creditors if bills do not arrive
on time.4. Minimize the identification information and the
number of credit cards you carry to what you actually need.
5. Before revealing personal identifying
information to anyone, find out how it will be used and
whether it will be shared with others.
6. Keep items with personal information
in a safe place. Tear them up or shred them when you don’t
need them any more. Make sure charge receipts, copies of
credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks and statements,
expired charge cards, and credit offers you get in the mail
are disposed of appropriately.
7. Unsecured mail boxes may be a source
of information for potential identity thieves. If your business
or personal mail box is a concern, one possible solution
is to rent a post office box. In most locations, the annual
fee is quite reason able, and protection for your mail will
be at the highest practical level.