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They take the fun out of being you

Identity thieves wreck lives and accounts more and more

Identity thieves wreck lives and accounts more and more

September 05, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

Winter is slow in Ron Vitkun's line of work. Although he said he doesn't do a lot of buying over the Internet, the co-owner of Yogi Bear Jellystone Resort in Williamsport admitted to spending too much time at an online auction site in the off-season.

Last year his was the winning bid for a flat-screen computer monitor he had his eye on. He gave his credit-card number and sealed the deal.

He sent questions via e-mail, asking for shipping information, but he didn't get a response. Then he heard from another bidder who was concerned because he hadn't heard from the same seller.

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Within 24 hours, Vitkun got an alert from the auction site telling him that the seller was not legitimate and that he should notify his credit card company at once.

Vitkun's identity had been stolen.

He is not alone. A 2003 survey found that as many as 10 million Americans were victims of some form of identity theft within the previous year, according to information on the Web site of the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.

Although the thief's approach was different, Danny Pelton of Warfordsburg, Pa., had a similar experience. The 30-year-old paramedic had money in an account offered by an online payment service affiliated with the online auction site he's used. Payments for items purchased can be made directly from the account. Pelton didn't have to write or mail a check. Very simple. Quick and easy.

Until ...

Somebody hacked into his personal e-mail account and blocked any messages from that online payment service, Pelton said. Those messages included notification that there was a problem.

You don't need a computer to have your identity stolen. Thieves can obtain your personal information in a variety of ways, including stealing your wallet, your mail, credit card statements, credit offers, new checks, tax information. Some complete a postal change of address form and have their victims' mail sent someplace else.

They may fish for your personal information by sending you totally authentic-looking communications from a company you've done business with.

"It's terrible that you have to worry about it," Vitkun said.

Christina Sandeen, director of Fraud Early Warning at Citicorp Credit Services Inc. in Hagerstown, agreed.

But it's a fact of 21st-century life.

The best protection against identity theft is to be really diligent about your personal information, she said.

If you think you are a victim of identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission recommends the following:

· Have a fraud alert placed on your credit file by contacting any one of the three major credit bureaus. The alert requests that creditors contact you before opening any new accounts or making changes to existing accounts.

· Close accounts you know or believe have been affected. Use the ID Theft Affidavit when disputing new unauthorized accounts. A printable form is available online at www.ftc.gov.

· File a police report. Get a copy of the report to submit to your creditors and others that may require proof of the crime.

· File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which maintains a database of identity theft cases used by law enforcement agencies for investigations. For information, call 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357) or go to www.ftc.gov on the Web.

Compared to many who have lost lots of money and hours and hours - even months or years - trying to clean up the mess caused by identity thieves - Danny Pelton and Ron Vitkun got off easy.

They've made some changes in how they handle online transactions.

Pelton switched to money orders for online purchases. They're a bit more cumbersome than an automatic electronic funds transfer, but he figures it's safer.

Vitkun and his wife opened a separate credit card account with a low limit and use it only for online transactions.

"I used to be a trusting person," Pelton said. Now the thought that someone could hijack his finances always is in the back of his mind.

If you go ...


"How to Avoid Being a Victim"

Credit card and identity theft seminar, including breakfast buffet

Presented by SCORE, Counselors to America's Small Business, with Maryland Better Business Bureau and Maryland Retailers Association

7:30 to 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 14

Four Points Sheraton

1910 Dual Highway

Hagerstown

$25 in advance, $30 at door

For information and registration, call 301-739-2015, ext. 103, or go to www.scorehagerstown.org on the Web.

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