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Identity theft puts ugly face on your good name

February 01, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

According to the FBI, more than 10 million people in the U.S. experienced identity theft in 2005. In Maryland alone, nearly 5,000 people experienced some form of identity theft. Over the last five years, 30 million Americans have been affected by identity theft - about 10 percent of the population of the U.S.

The Federal Trade Commission reports that 54 percent of the victims of identity theft uncover the theft while monitoring their own accounts. Twenty-six percent are alerted by companies they previously have done business with, and 8 percent learned of the theft when they applied for credit and were refused.

Such theft might include obtaining cash, credit or a loan using another's identity. No one is immune.

Accessing others' personal information can occur if a wallet or purse is stolen. There are many opportunities to copy or steal credit card information - during a transaction, at work, while contracting services such as a hospital stay or school enrollment, during a robbery or in-home service call, or during a phone scam such as an erroneous change of address.

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Some identity thieves are successful in using random Social Security numbers; others might dive into dumpsters for trash or steal mail. About half of those who steal another's identity know the victim of their theft.

The impact of identity theft can be enormous. Thieves might use others' information to sign checks or make withdrawals from financial accounts, obtain credit cards, set up utility or other services, apply for employment, or access Social Security benefits. Victims of identity theft might be denied employment or turned down for services such as a telephone, utility or a loan.

Reducing the risk of identity theft:

· Memorize your Social Security number, but don't use it as an identification number on bank checks, insurance forms or other cards.

· Ask questions. If asked to provide your Social Security number, ask: How will this number be used? How will this number be protected? And is giving my Social Security number necessary?

· Add passwords to credit and debit cards, bank accounts and phone or online accounts. Keep passwords easy to remember, but be creative. And be careful. Experts recommend that you do not use a maiden name, birth date, the last four digits of a Social Security or telephone number, street address or postal ZIP code as your password.

· Add a photo ID to credit and debit cards.

· Protect credit cards and checks from others' view, and fill in all blanks on receipts, rather than leaving empty spaces that can be filled in after you have completed a transaction.

· Hang on to receipts, rather than putting them in a bag with a purchase. Use them to double-check the accuracy of your bill.

· Shred bills and other personal information before disposal.

· Don't share personal information over the telephone, through the mail or via the Internet unless you initiated the call and know why a business or service needs the information.

· Evaluate offers of a free prize, trip or potential windfall that require personal information to be eligible.

· Remove personal information and identification from a purse or pockets in clothing before donating them to second-hand shops. Never discard a computer without erasing all files on the hard drive, but this will not remove all information from the disk. Better yet, smash the hard drive with a hammer.

If identity theft is suspected

· Keep a log of all correspondence - telephone calls, e-mail messages, letters and documentation mailed - as you pursue your identity theft case.

· Notify bank and credit card companies immediately; place a fraud alert on accounts.

· Stop payment on outstanding checks.

· Change passwords and PIN numbers.

· Request new ATM cards.

· File a police report.

Who do you call?

Here are other agencies you might need to contact. Note the date, time of call and name of the person to whom the identity theft is reported to establish a paper trail.

· Contact the FTC at 877-ID-THEFT

· Local office of Motor Vehicle Administration (if a driver's license is involved)

· Internal Revenue Service

· Passport office

· Social Security Administration

· U.S. Postal Service.

Lynn Little is an educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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