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How to protect your name

Identity Theft:
Stealing Your Name and Your Money

In what many are calling America's fastest growing type of theft, crooks are working without the usual tools of the trade. Forget sawed-off shotguns and ski masks: your name and Social Security number will do the trick, or that blank, pre-approved credit application you tossed out with the coffee grounds. Even talking on your phone or surfing the Internet can allow someone you may never meet to deprive you of the one thing you may have thought safe from attack: your identity.

An identity theft perpetrator may use a variety of tactics to obtain your personal information and drain your finances: posing as a loan officer and ordering your credit report (which lists lines of credit); "shoulder surfing" at the ATM or phone booth to get your PIN code; "dumpster diving" in trash bins behind businesses or apartments for unshredded credit applications, canceled checks, bank records or any documents containing personal information; or, stealing mail right out of your own mailbox.

It may take months before you realize you're a victim of identity theft. But when you get turned down for credit, a car loan, or a mortgage on your dream house because you've got a bad credit rating and you know you've paid your bills, beware: The identity thief may have struck again.

Do you carry your Social Security number in your wallet? Consider this: That nine-digit code gives crooks access to your medical, financial, credit and educational records. There are no legal restrictions on private company use of Social Security numbers (SSNs). In fact, a database of names with associated SSNs was recently found published on the Internet. What's worse, some states still use your SSN for your driver's license number -- a policy that is, fortunately, changing.

If you think you're safe because you canceled your credit cards and put a "stop" on your checking account after your wallet was stolen, think again. Once identity thieves have your information, they may open new accounts or lines of credit -- under your name, for their use.

Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, including you. The culprits may be employees (or patrons) of mailrooms, airlines, hotels, or personnel offices -- anyone who has access to financial information. Thieves may use your credit card or encoding equipment (sold by business-supply companies) and blank cards with magnetic strips to record your account number onto a counterfeit card with a different name. Crooks sometimes seek jobs that will give them access to financial information, or they may bribe employees in such positions to supply them with the data they want.

Need a phony ID to "prove" you're the person whose name is on the credit card? Try surfing the Web. There are scores of sites with instructions on how to create a "new you." If you've got your own computer, scanner, and color printer or copier, you can create your own false IDs.

In response to recommendations by the Chief Postal Inspector, a prevention measure that addresses some of consumers' concerns was adopted by the U.S. Postal Service. Aware that a crook could submit address changes to divert customers’ mail without their knowledge, post offices now send a "Move Validation Letter" to both an old and new address when a change is filed. The letter requests you call an "800" number if you did not file the change.

In 2006 the Federal Trade Commission reported that only 2% of all Identity Theft cases were a result of information taken from the U.S. Mail. No matter how miniscule; the Postal Inspection Service takes this crime seriously and wants to ensure the U.S. Postal Service continues to be the “Most Trusted Government Agency” as indicated by the Ponemon Institute Report from 2004 to present day.

Postal Inspectors have jurisdiction to investigate and enforce more than 200 federal statutes involving the U.S. Mail. Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 1708, allows Postal Inspectors to arrest anyone suspected of stealing mail or filing a false change-of-address order. The offender shall be fined under this title or imprisoned up to five years, or both. If someone applies for a credit card in your name, they may be prosecuted under Title 18, USC 1341. The penalty is a fine or up to five years imprisonment, or both -- unless a financial institution is affected, in which case the fine may be raised to $1 million and imprisonment may ordered for up to 30 years, or both.

A number of prevention programs have been implemented to combat ID theft: the card-activation system (an idea proposed by a Postal Inspector), which requires that credit card holders call the issuer upon receipt to ensure the cards are in the right hands; credit checks, in which creditors check card applications against various fraud databases before issuing a new card: and new methods of encoding the magnetic strip on credit cards to increase their security.

But don't depend on these measures for your peace of mind. Read the information below to protect yourself from those who prey on your good name and good credit.

Securing Your Identity and Finances

  • Don't leave mail in your mailbox overnight or on weekends; deposit outgoing mail at the post office and promptly remove mail from your mailbox after delivery.

  • Shred unwanted documents that contain personal information before discarding them in the trash.

  • Every year, order and thoroughly review copies of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies.

  • Never give personal identifying information over the telephone or the Internet unless you initiated the contact.

Who to Call for Help

If you're a victim of identity theft and the U.S. Mail is involved, call Postal Inspectors at 1-877-876-2455 and local police.

Visit the Federal Trade Commission's Web site, which is the federal government's central consumer assistance and information center. The FTC provides educational materials and self-help tools, as well as an online reporting form. The FTC also maintains a toll-free hotline at 1-877-ID-THEFT, with consumer counselors available to assist victims.

Report credit card fraud to the three major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax: 800-525-6285, Experian: 888-397-3742, and TransUnion: 800-680-7289.

If you've had bank accounts set up fraudulently in your name, call these check guarantee companies: Telecheck at 800-366-2425; and the International Check Services Company at 800-526-5380. They can flag your file so that counterfeit checks will be refused.

If fraudulent charges appear on your account, call the Consumer Credit Counseling Service at 800-388-2227 for help in clearing false claims from your credit report.