When Chad Moore went to the bank one day, he was shocked to find his account empty and closed. Money was not usually a problem for the 25-year-old computer programmer of Boston. A credit report revealed that not only had someone been using his two credit cards, there were seven credit cards in his name.
Moore changed his account number, but as soon as his paycheck was directly deposited, it would disappear. He set up his account so that he had to go to his branch in person to make any kind of transaction. Two years later, he is still working to get things off his credit report and doesn’t think he’ll see the $8,000 that he lost. “The hardest thing is getting credit bureaus to take things off your record,” he said. “They don’t like taking off points.”
It turns out Moore was one of tens of thousands of victims of the biggest incident of identity theft in history. Employees in the data processing department of Ford Motor Credit were to blame. A few months prior to the incident, he had applied for a car loan. “They were selling people’s information for $30, so I guess that’s what my identity is worth,” Moore said.
[A FACELESS CRIME]
Nine point nine million Americans spend $5 billion per year repairing their good name, according to the United States Postal Service. Identity theft is the fastest growing white-collar crime and takes many forms. Anyone is prey to victimization, including unsuspecting young adults, who make up the second highest percentage of victims, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Young adults ages 18-29 make up 26 percent of victims annually, trailing by one percent to adults ages 30-29.
“A lot of people view college students as easy victims and having a lot of money,” Azusa Pacific University Campus Safety Sergeant Anthony Strickland said.
Part of the popularity of the crime is its faceless nature; the criminal goes unseen. All you need is a few numbers: an address, social security number, bank account, credit card, driver’s license or old check.
“There are certain things people can do, such as not carrying their social security card in their wallet and being aware of who they give their social security number to and how they will use it,” director of victim services at the Identity Theft Resource Center Sheila said. “Think about all the places your information is at.”
Identity theft happens in a number of ways. Anyone can get information from a lost wallet, an application requiring your information, stolen mail, a dishonest employee of an organization misusing their access to information, a scam and many other ways. Victims can go for a while before realizing their identities were stolen.
Sereyna Avila, a student at Azusa Pacific University, was waiting for her new credit card in the mail when she received a phone call about some suspicious charges. After someone stole a new credit card from her mailbox, they tried to use it a number of places but had difficulty because it had not yet been activated. Although it was denied multiple times, over $100 was still charged to the account.
Avila first filed a police report and then traced the time and location of a denied transaction and requested the security video from the store. “The person using my card in the video was my 50-year-old neighbor from two doors down,” Avila said. “My credit union was great; they put all the money back in my account immediately.” She did spend about $120 out of her pocket getting documents notarized.
[WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR IDENTITY HAS BEEN STOLEN]
If you think you might be a victim, there are important steps to halt fraud and prevent it from happening in the future. Immediately report the crime to the police, postal service, creditors and businesses involved. Contact one of the three trusted credit bureaus to have a fraud alert placed on your credit file. This will prevent thieves from opening additional accounts. Contacting creditors and businesses should be done by phone and in a letter; these institutions also require affidavits.
Have any tampered accounts closed immediately. Do not pay bills for things that you did not charge. If unauthorized accounts were opened, use an ID Theft Affidavit to have them closed. Make copies of the police report and send that to creditors.
Dealing with some creditors can take years. Joy Falk of Vancouver, Wash., was victimized eight years ago and is still bothered. “I can’t afford to go after them; it’s never ending. Even though they aren’t supposed to stay on your credit, they do,” Falk said. She had to get attorneys because the police reports and affidavits didn’t satisfy pestering creditors. “Mine was really minor, and it still makes you feel so vulnerable because you can’t make them stop,” Falk said.
[PROTECTING YOUR NAME]
In order to avoid being victimized, there are few important steps to take. First, get an annual credit check by trusted credit bureaus such as Equifax, Experian or Trans Union. Avoid giving personal information over the phone. Match your credit card receipts to your bill statements and then shred all receipts and documents with your personal information.
The Identity Theft Resource Center suggests having your credit checked regularly and reading monthly bank statements. “You can look at consumer credit reports without a negative effect on your rating,” Sheila said.
It’s also a good idea to know who your information is going to and what is done with it. Moore suggested looking into lenders before taking out a loan.
“Be selective of whom you give your information to and if there are options; then don’t give more information than is required,” Strickland said. “It’s incredibly easy for someone to commit fraud with just a few numbers; they don’t even have to be seen.”
To protect yourself from having your mail stolen, have a locked mailbox, and have someone you know and trust check it when you are out of town. If you suspect someone has stolen your mail, notify the United States Postal Service so they can handle the situation.
There is no way to be fully protected from being victimized by identity theft. But considering its fast growing rate and damaging effects, it’s important to be informed on the many forms it can take. “There’s nothing I could have done; it’s not like I was looking around on a shady website,” Moore said. “There are just too many scams out there now.”
[FACTS] – Identity Theft was the cause of 43 percentof complaints made to the Federal Trade Commission in 2002. That’s up 88 percentfrom the previous year’s 161,800 complaints.
– In 2002, Star Systems conducted a telephone survey showing that one in 20 adults (11.8 million Americans) have been victimized.
– Victims spend an average 600 hours and $1,400 in out-of-pocket expenses repairing the effects of this crime, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.
– Even after the culprit stops using the information, effects of the crime can linger, according to ITRC. Some of these include higher credit or insurance rates, inability to get a job or battling credit agencies.
[HOW VICTIMS’ INFORMATION IS MISUSED] 42 percent – credit card fraud
22 percent – phone or utilities fraud
17 percent – bank fraud
9.3 percent – employment related fraud
8 percent – government documents or benefits fraud
6 percent – loan fraud
16 percent – other identity theft (ie: medical, Internet, bankruptcy)
(Source: Federal Trade Commission 2002)
[TO HAVE YOUR CREDIT CHECKED BY A TRUSTED CREDIT BUREAU] Equifax – 800-685-1111
Experian – 888-397-3742
Trans Union – 800-888-4213
[RELATED LINKS] Federal Trade Commission
U.S. Government Accounting Office
U.S. Postal Inspection Service