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Who's got your number?

Be wary about who asks you for personal information

Be wary about who asks you for personal information

May 03, 2002|BY LYNN F. LITTLE

By Lynn F. Little

Identity fraud is a financial crime of epidemic proportions.

It happens when a thief obtains personal identifying information, including your Social Security number (SSN), and then uses that information to establish fraudulent accounts in your name.

When you are asked for personal data (SSN, credit card number, driver's license number or telephone number), ask why it is needed and how it will be used. You have the right to know.

You are required to provide your SSN for income tax records, medical records, credit bureau reports, college records, loan applications and vehicle registrations.

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Protect your important numbers. You can and may want to refuse to have your SSN printed on personal checks, or give it out over the telephone, on club memberships, on address labels, as identification for store purchases and refunds and as general identification.

Be aware that thieves can obtain identifying information by stealing your wallet or purse. They can use the information found in your wallet or purse from credit cards, checks, your Social Security card, and even health insurance cards to establish new fraudulent accounts in your name.

Thieves also gain personal information by dumpster diving (fishing unshredded credit slips or applications from the trash). They can gain personal information by stealing mail from your mailbox and purchasing SSNs from Internet web sites.

Identity thieves have often been able to obtain SSNs through unauthorized use of an SSN by a disgruntled spouse, relative, co-worker or friend.

You can minimize your risk of identity fraud by following these tips:

Ask how your personal information will be used. Consider refusing to do business with retailers who require your SSN; they have a right to ask, but you have the right to refuse.

Don't let sales clerks hand write your SSN on your personal check.

Don't have your SSN preprinted on your bank checks. Give only necessary information - name and address on your personal checks. Any additional information, such as telephone number, driver's license number and SSN number, makes it easier for fraud to occur.

Pick up new checks at your financial institution; don't have them sent to your home.

Mail bills containing checks from the post office, rather than leaving them in your mailbox.

Review credit card statements to check for unauthorized charges.

Don't carry your Social Security card with you unless you need it that day.

Don't give any personal information (including your SSN) over the phone.

Don't use the last four digits of your SSN as your PIN for an ATM card or other accounts.

Shred pre-approved credit offers and documents before discarding them.

Take your ATM receipts with you after all transactions; rip up receipts before putting them in the trash.

Memorize your PIN numbers rather than writing them down in a "safe" place and avoid using your SSN for identification purposes when possible.

Periodically check the accuracy of your medical history records and your credit reports. You can check the accuracy of your records by writing to the Medical Information Bureau (MIB). MIB is a data bank used by insurance companies.

Access to these records is gained via your SSN. You may want to obtain a copy of your file and make sure the information is correct. You also may wish to discuss your MIB report and other medical records periodically with your doctor.

You can check the accuracy of your credit bureau reports by contacting the three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax and Trans Union) or by looking in the yellow pages of your telephone book under "credit reporting agencies" for local agencies.

If you are a victim of identity fraud, act quickly. First, contact the fraud units of Equifax, Experian and Trans Union credit bureaus immediately. Request that a fraud alert be placed in your file and ask for a free copy of your credit report to check for fraudulent accounts opened in your name.

Then call credit card issuers, utility companies, Social Security Administration, financial institutions and other lenders to notify them of the fraud. Follow up each conversation with a letter.

Finally, report the theft to law enforcement and insist on receiving a copy of the report.

Identity fraud victims are forced to spend a great deal of time cleaning up the mess caused by personal identity thieves (time off work, writing letters, making phone calls, getting affidavits notarized).

A police report may be required as evidence of identity theft.

Unfortunately, victims are left with a poor credit record and will have difficulty writing checks, getting loans, renting an apartment, even getting a job. The worst case scenario is when a perpetrator commits a crime in the victim's name and gives that person a criminal record.

If you would like to have more information about protecting your privacy and reporting identity theft, send a self-addressed, stamped (34-cents) business-size envelope to Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County Office, 7303 Sharpsburg Pike, Boonsboro, MD 21713. Mark the envelope. "Fraud."

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, Washington County.

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