Are You at #Risk for #Identity Theft? Learn How to #Protect Yourself

Identity Theft is America’s fastest growing type of robbery. There have been an estimated 9.9 million victims on America and over 40% of all consumer complaints in the U.S. involve identity theft. About half of the victims do not know how the thief obtained their personal information. The Boston Globe and Newsweek have both covered Identity theft recently telling us how important it is for us to educate ourselves on preventing and protecting ourselves from this type of robbery. Identity theft can happen anytime, anywhere and to anyone, individuals or businesses. Everyone must be educated and aware so it can be avoided. Michael Blanchard, US Postal Inspector says postal money orders and business or certified checks are one way you can be at risk. Most identity theft involves the U.S. Mail which is why the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is a lead agency in investigating Identity Theft. Identity Theft is a criminal offense.

Some scams are internet related, you go into a chat room and chat with people there, someone approaches you as a friend, or about an auction. You become comfortable with these people you are chatting with and start a “friendship”. The person who has befriended you may tell you such things as, “I am in the Peace Corp, and I have a money order that I can’t cash where I am”, which is Lagos or Nigeria. They might ask you if they send you the money order, if you will cash it and send them the money. This is a scam. The money order you receive can be fraudulent, once you cash and send the money you are out this money once the bank realizes the money order was no good.

Another scenario might be if you sell items at online auctions. Someone may email you about your item that is for sale. They will tell you they want to purchase your item, and they are in Nigeria so they will send you extra money to pay for a shipper to send the item to them. They will send you a counterfeit money order or check and ask you to cash the check and wire the extra money to them so they can pay the shippers to ship your item. They may even ask you to go to a bank to cash the money order rather than the post office. The reason for this is that the post office has a machine that can tell if the money order is fake, and they have much more experience with money orders than banks.

Many of these types of scams originate in Nigeria, London and Toronto. If you are aware of this, you can prevent this from happening to you. Most thieves still obtain personal information through traditional rather than electronic channels. In the cases where the method was known, 68.2% of information was obtained off-line versus only 11.6% obtained online.

If you receive a fraudulent money order and take it to a bank, rather than the post office, a bank can take a month or more before they notify you that the money order is fake. If this happens, you are then responsible for the funds. If you do get caught up in this situation, take your money order to a post office rather than a bank, it is not guaranteeing you will not be “taken” but it lowers your chances.

How can you tell if a money order is fraudulent? Fake money orders do not have a water mark. Hold up the money order to the window or light, can you see the portrait, on the left side? This portrait needs to be backlit by light to be seen and cannot be mimicked. Some producers of fake money orders try to use fake pictures as a water mark; you will be able to tell if you hold it to the light. These money orders are generally printed in Nigeria, they use the same offset press we use to print real money orders, so check your money orders! You can also check for type size, color and fonts. Another step you can take is to call or go online to the Post office and give them the serial number off of the money order; they can tell if it is real. If you receive a counterfeit money order, you will want to give it to the post office or police. Possession of a counterfeit item is a felony.

Other scams include receiving an email or letter stating you have won a lottery, or a prize notification. Some letters or announcements will arrive with a counterfeit check and you pay a processing fee to get the prize. These checks are counterfeit; never send money to anyone who is asking for money from you in order to give you money, whether it is disguised as a prize or lottery. Any prize that requires you to pay anything is no prize.

How do these people get my name? If you have a credit card, your name is sold to third parties, if you do not want this to happen, you must contact your credit card companies to inform them that you do not want your information sold. Check the privacy notice that comes with your bill. If you enter contests, your information becomes public. Also, when you buy a new product, and fill out the warranty cards, those companies sell that information you provide to other companies. Since when does your toaster manufacturer need to know you households’ annual income to extend a warranty on your toaster? Thieves use dumpster digging, phishing, and pharming to obtain your information. Things they steal from your trash include:

• Pre-approved credit card offers – they complete them and have the card sent to them at a different address

• Loan applications- they complete the application and have the money sent to a phony address.

• Bank statements- they then have your bank account number and can print counterfeit checks

Becky Palmer, a Consumer Credit Counselor, knew of someone who had their wallet stolen, and they used the credit card to buy a $5000.00 gift card at Wal mart, this then become very hard to trace.

People that are more at risk are senior citizens, people with disabilities and immigrants, but remember that everyone, including children are at risk. Senior citizens are home all day; they might get a phone call from a fake charity asking for money. Immigrants are desperate for credit, they may have just arrived in the US and know they need credit to do anything and are not aware of these scams. People with disabilities are home, and may become a victim of phone or online fraud. There have also been cases of home care providers taking advantage of their clients. Remember, it is not always a stranger that can steal someone’s identity. Did you know children can be victims of identity theft? This could affect or ruin their credit before they even are able to build up credit for themselves. There have been cases of parents using a child’s name for their electric bill or phone bill when they have bad credit or owe the utility company money. Thieves will obtain the social security number of these children then use that number to get credit cards and rack up purchases.

Some of these scammers will call you and say they are from a fictitious charity. They will offer to have your contribution automatically deducted from your checking account and will ask for your routing number, bank name, and account number. DO NOT GIVE OUT THIS INFORMATION! If you pick up a call from a telemarketer, ask them the following questions and if they are a fraud, they will hang up quickly.

• Who do you work for? They will try to give you the name of the fake charity here, so ask them “who pays your salary?”

• How much of my donation (percentage) goes to this charity and what is the rest of the money used for?” If they are for real, they can easily give you this information.

• What is the charity’s full name, address and phone number?

Once you have the above information you can check with the state attorney generals’ office or secretary of state to see if the charity is registered. Also check the charity’s rating through the Better Business Bureau at http://www.give.org.

How can I prevent Identity theft from happening to me? Never leave your receipt or slip in the ATM or gas pump. Pay attention to your habits, lock up or organize and file your bills, and bank statements. Shred them using a cross shredder before throwing them away.

In a recent article in MSN Money their research showed that 32% of people said they had been a victim of identity fraud by a friend or family, and 13% were victimized by a co-worker. Beware! These people know your patterns and habits.

Some steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim of Identity theft are:

Get a copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus. (FREE as of 9/1/05!)

Experien, PO Box 2002, Allen TX 75013 http://www.experian.com 888-397-3742

Equifax, PO Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30348 http://www.equifax.com 800-685-1111

Trans Union, PO Box 4000, Chester, PA 19016 http://www.transunion.com 866-887-2673

Opt out of mailing lists by contacting the credit bureaus above.

Opt out by reading the privacy notice that comes with your credit card and following the instructions.

Call the national Do Not Call Registry at 1-888-382-1222 or visit http://www.donotcall.gov be sure to call from the number you want to register

Do not carry your Social Security Card in your wallet

Do not print your Social security number on your checks

Do not get your social security number printed on your drivers’ license

Do not carry your medicade card with you, Medicade #’s are your Social security number

Delete any emails from Nigeria, or lottery or prize notifications before opening

Stop credit card offers 888-5-OPT-OUT

Remove your name from national mailing lists by visiting http://www.the-dma.org or write to:

Mail Preference Service

PO Box 643

Carmel, NY 10512

Install firewall and virus protection software on your computer

Password protect your computer and private personal files

Format your hard drive or physically destroy when disposing of your old computer

When you order new checks, get your first initial printed on them instead of your first name

Use a cross shredder to shred your bills and bank statements or any junk mail

Bring your mail to the post office or secure mail box rather than leaving it in a rural box.

Use only one designated credit card for online purchases

Be sure all online purchases are made through a secure server – notice the “lock” icon and how the URL address changes from http to https. The S means SECURE.

Do not carry your PIN # in your wallet

Do not use your date of birth as a password or PIN.

Do not give out personal or financial information over the phone.

Grind up or shred back up CD’s you are throwing away.

Check your online banking account at least 3 times a week and change your password often.

There is a new bill that is being passes, it is a very weak bill but if passed, it will prohibit using a social security number for identification purposes. This bill should take affect in 2006.

If you feel you have been a victim of identity fraud, contact the Department of Justice, consumer protection division. They offer mediation with identity theft; they also have a hot line for consumers that is available 8-5 Monday – Friday. They maintain a database of written complaints that goes back to 1998. They offer seminars to school, seniors or your group.

Be aware that 40 million crooks obtained credit card numbers this past year, “Be Suspicious”. Also be aware that most identify theft is not reported, especially when it involves family members, so the statistics are off. These statistics show that consumers lost $5 billion last year when in actuality it is closer to $50 billion. There have been an estimated 9.9 million victims in America.

What can I do if I am already a victim of ID theft?

• Contact the fraud departments of the three major credit bureaus, to place a fraud alert on your credit file.

• Close all accounts that have been affected and request copies of fraud-dispute forms and complete and return immediately. Keep copies!

• File a police report in each jurisdiction the theft occurred

• Send copies of the report to your creditors or anyone that requires proof of the crime

• File a complaint with the FTC (800-IDTHEFT or [http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft]) and Post Office

• Contact the Identity Theft Resource center at 858-693-7935 or http://www.idtheftcenter.org

• Request a new driver’s license from the state of motor vehicles and have a fraud report attached to your driving record.

• Notify check-verification firms about any fraudulent checks:

International check service 800-526-5380

Telecheck 800-927-0755

Certegy Check Services 800-437-5120

• Call 1-888-CALL-FCC and file a complaint.

• Change your passwords and PIN immediately.

What is “Phishing”?

If you get an email or letter or form that looks like it came from your bank, credit card company, the IRS, online auction or bill pay service asking you to verify information so they can update their records, verify this with your bank or credit card company. Never click on the link in an email; it will take you to a fraudulent website that is disguised to look like the companies. If you call to verify and your bank or credit card company wants this information, give it to them over the phone, if you initiated the call and are sure it is the correct number, or stop by in person if possible.

Warning signs you can look for to identify “Scams”

If someone tells you: “Poor or no credit – No problem!”

Offers you a “Bargain loan”

Rushes you through signing up for anything

Wants you to pay a fee

If a salesman comes to your door and says “I was just in the neighborhood”

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it is!