If thieves have got your number - off a Social Security card, say - that's all they need to pose as you. Behind a rising crime wave.
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"We need to ... balance customer expectations and access to information," says Peter Cohen, chief privacy officer of the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto.Skip to next paragraph
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Heidi, for one, suggests consumers take prevention into their own hands. She recently instructed the credit bureaus and her credit-card companies to ask for a password before changing any of her personal information.
"Once this woman got my Social Security number, my creditors obviously believed everything she told them," says Heidi.
Heightened awareness and common sense can prevent most incidents of identity theft. Consumer advocates suggest that people not carry their Social Security cards, and use caution in writing checks to anyone outside the "official" economy.
They add that consumers should never give out account information over the telephone to those purporting to be checking on the status of their accounts. Instead, account holders should call the company, using a publicly listed telephone number.
Consumers should be aware that many companies do not require personal information like Social Security numbers (sometimes just a partial S.S. number can be offered as an identifier). "Information never collected doesn't invade anyone's privacy," adds Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal, a privacy newsletter in Providence, R.I.
If you do give out personal information, companies are required to disclose how that data will be used. Consumers can also demand that financial-service firms not share or sell their personal information. Each year, these companies must inform customers of their right to opt out of their data being sold.
Tools for helping avert identity theft include:
Paper shredders. Use these to destroy sensitive documents such as preapproved credit-card applications or tax information. Wastebasket-size shredders cost between $15 and $200.
Locked mailboxes. Check with your post office to make sure mail carriers will be able to access them.
Firewall software. This can ward off hackers' attempts to find personal information on your computer. Good programs run between $30 and $50.
Encryption software. This cloaks your e-mail and other online communications in code - decipherable only by those equipped with the password. PGP Security, one of the market leaders, offers free encryption software on their website (www.pgp.com/products/ freeware/default.asp).
Identity-theft victims can usually clear their names by contacting creditors and the three major credit bureaus: Equifax (800-685-1111), Experian (888-397-3742), and TransUnion (800-888-4213). Provide them with a notarized affidavit identifying any fraudulent account and ask that it be closed. To help with the process, the Consumer Information Center has a seven-page form on its website (www.consumer.gov/ idtheft/affidavit.htm). It can be downloaded, copied, and mailed to credit bureaus and creditors.
For more tips, visit the Identity Theft Resource Center's website (www.idtheftcenter.org).
How big a trend: An estimated 500,000 to 750,000 Americans were victims of identity theft in 2001. (Some 200,000 filed complaints.) Cost to economy: $3 billion.
Who's hit most: The average age of consumers reporting an incident was 41. Washington, D.C., had the highest rate of identity theft, with 77 victims for every 100,000 people. California and Nevada followed, with ratios of 45 and 41 per 100,000, respectively.
Thieves' favorite angles: Credit-card fraud accounted for the most incidents, followed by the creation of false phone and utility accounts and false bank accounts.
Source: Federal Trade Commission, Treasury Department