In the biggest breakthrough yet against identity theft, US law-enforcement officials last week charged three men for allegedly running a high-tech scheme targeting thousands of Americans.
Losses in the scam are estimated at $2.7 million so far, US Attorney James B. Corney said in New York. The credit information of some 30,000 people was stolen. Many of those hit had their bank accounts drained, addresses changed, lines of credit opened, and credit cards issued.
To guard against identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission offers these tips:
• Before revealing personal information, find out how it will be used and if it will be shared.
• Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if bills don't arrive on time.
• Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. (It seldom is.)
• Minimize the amount of identification information and the number of credit cards you carry.
• Order a copy of your credit report from the three credit-reporting agencies every year. They are Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union.
• Destroy documents bearing personal information once a financial adviser confirms that you no longer need them.
US third-quarter personal bankruptcy filings were up 12 percent from a year ago, with 391,873 people seeking bankruptcy protection, according to the Administrative Office of US Courts. That puts filings on track to surpass last year's record of 1.45 million bankruptcies.
Meanwhile, a national survey by Myvesta, a financial counseling firm in Gaithersburg, Md., found that credit-card debt has rocketed 35 percent over the past year, with those polled facing, on average, a balance of $3,250 spread over 2.5 credit cards.
And with the arrival of the holiday season, that debt may rise if people haven't been planning and saving for their purchases, says Steve Rhode, president of Myvesta. "Even though many people say they will pay off their holiday debt in a few months, in reality it usually takes six months to a year."
The survey found that men carry an average of $3,932 in credit-card debt, $1,348 more than the average $2,584 for women.
In another survey of its 50 clients in "financial crisis," Myvesta found an average total debt among this group of $262,825 - a 61 percent hike over last year. Their average credit-card debt jumped 8 percent, from $48,194 in 2001 to $52,210 in 2002.