Given the percentage of growth, the reality is that most of us will become a victim of identity theft sometime in our lives, if not multiple times.
-- Linda Goldman-Foley, Executive Director of the Identity Theft Resource Center
It can happen to anyone. The phone rings and a collection agency demands that you pay past-due accounts for goods you never ordered. The supermarket refuses your checks because you have a history of bouncing them. But you have always paid bills on time. While there are no guarantees about avoiding identity theft, there are steps you can take to minimize your risk and minimize the damage if a problem occurs. For the second time in as many years, someone has taken computers with my personal information on it. Even though my last mystery shop was over a year ago and I had deactivated my account with them, one of the companies I worked for as an Independent Contractor still had my information on file. Not only did they not encrypt the information, when the burglar alarm went off the alarm company called and the business owners canceled the police call to check it out. To make matters worse I did not learn of the crime until 54 days later when a form letter arrived by bulk mail with no discernible postmark. The business owner’s negligence is outrageous. When I explained to a friend all the things I had to do, he thought it was a bit more than necessary saying, “Most people don’t take all these steps to protect themselves.” In light of how the business owner took care of my personal information I understood exactly what he meant adding that a good defense against idiocy is a good offense against the crimes they perpetuate.
Identity theft, the robbery that keeps on robbing
Knowing the poorly communicative owner of the shopping company would read the comments at a mystery shopper’s forum I logged in and blasted them. One of the schedulers who works for them replied:
"As far as (this shopping company) or any other company answering our questions to soothe us, it is doubtful they will respond. This is none of our business."
Understandably this made me even angrier:
I don't want placating I want action!
It IS my business when I have to log in HOURS of time to get credit reports and place fraud alerts on all my accounts for which I will have to show my driver's license for the next year to use.
It IS my business when I have to go through extra paper work to take out credit.
It IS my business when I have to call the detective on my dime and ask what the status of the case is.
It IS my business when my identity is stolen after I deactivated my account over a year ago.
Will (the shopping company) reimburse me for the time and hassle? Not in my lifetime.
While the owner did respond it was still a lot more dodging of our questions. Like, Was our information encrypted as required by state law? And, without a postmarked envelope how do we explain the time line of the crime and their notification to our creditors? Here are some facts related to the costs of identity theft:
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Statistics, identity theft is now passing up drug trafficking as the number one crime in the nation.
According to one expert, the loss or theft of just one laptop can cost a company as much as $90,000 or more in fines, credit monitoring for victims, public relations damage control, and class action litigation.
Hours spent: In 2004, victims spent an average of 330 hours recovering from this crime.
Time dealing with the case: In both (2003 and 2004) 26 to 32% responded that they spent a period of four to six months. However, a higher number of respondents in 2003 (23%) as compared to those in 2004 (11%) responded that they had been dealing with their case for a period of seven months to a year.
The Top Five Offenses
In the United States federal law protects us from owing more than $50.00 per credit card taken out with our Social Security Number (SSN) - but only if the personal identity theft is reported within two days of discovering the theft. Any longer than that and the victim falls outside the $50.00 limitation and becomes liable for all charges made in their name. Credit card companies have been known to send collections agencies after victims of ID theft to recoup their losses. It can take years to straighten out their credit. Here are five steps you can take that could prevent this from happening.
- Call one of the credit bureaus and have them flag your credit report. The flag lasts for 90 days. The three main credit reporting bureaus in the US are Experian, Equifax and Transperian. These are the companies that businesses check when you want to take out a loan. Your credit score, based on your credit history, can determine a number of things like whether or not you qualify for a loan or how much interest you pay for the loan. A flag does not affect a credit score and means that you will get a phone call to verify that it is you who is trying to take out credit under your name and SSN.
- Go to:
You will need to do this as soon as possible because the credit bureaus may not let you access your report online after it's been flagged. You could wait for it to come by mail, but knowing right away can put your mind at ease. In many cases you won't know if someone is using your ID to open up a credit card until the bill comes in the mail. That could be as long as 30 days. Print up the credit report for your records. A detective from the previous case where my ID was stolen explained to me, to be aware that even if there is illegal activities going on with someone’s credit, that because of the widespread prevalence of ID theft, I cannot assume that the source is the burglary unless there is a line of evidence.
- If you discover your identity is being used illegally you will need to fill out a complaint form at the FTC website:
- You will need to contact all of your credit card companies, banks, savings and loans, mutual funds and anything else where someone could have access to your finances that you can think of. Some banks will not take your information over the phone. They will request that you actually go into the bank and report it.
Explain the time line of events. For example: The burglary occurred on December 16th, the letter notifying me was dated December 27th and I received it in an un-postmarked envelop on February13th.
Ask the each creditor if they would please consider making a note of this time line in their files, write down the place, phone number, name of the person you spoke to, the date and time and what they said they would do.
Ask all of your creditors if they can password protect your accounts. This means when you call to check balances, ask questions, etc., that in addition to the last four digits of your SSN and date of birth you will have to give some arcane information that only you would know. Some examples might be the name of the city where you first went to school or the year and model of your first car. It may also mean showing a picture ID, like a driver's license to use your credit and debit cards at retailers.
- Get a copy of the case report. You will need to call the police department were the crime was committed. Ask to speak to the Records Department explaining that you are a victim of the crime and your personal information was stolen as a result of it. Both of the police departments I contacted were very helpful in explaining how to get a copy of the police report under the Open Records Act. Expect to get a report with a great deal of it blacked out. This is to protect the business owner’s privacy. What you will be looking for is just a simple status of the case. You can ask the Sheriff's Department if you can speak to the detective on the case. He or she can be very reassuring as to how things will proceed.
Put all this information in a file and set it aside. Chances are that nothing may happen and know that you are as prepared as possible in case things start to unravel.
Debunking the bunk
Myth: It was small business with probably a minimal alarm system, and super-basic computer infrastructure, they should have done more!
Facts: The size of a business does not make them any less likely to become victims of property theft. Even if the information was encrypted it would be no less of a concern if a computer containing it was stolen. The previous theft of my ID occurred at well known medical office and made national news. Heck the military has experienced ID thefts and some of my information was in there too.
Myth: My bank account rarely has enough of a balance to worry about.
Facts: Some readers may be thinking that they don’t have enough money in the bank worth taking or maybe you are new to the world of credit. One of several ways in which ID theft occurs is when someone uses personal information like an address, phone number, date of birth and SSN to open up charge cards and use them for thousands of dollars. If you do not notify the business billing you for things you did not purchase or call the credit bureaus like Experian, Transunion or Equifax within the two day reporting period, creditors with these charges made by the thieves in your name may expect you to pay. Remember that you will not find out that someone has used your ID information to open up charge card accounts until the bills arrive in the mail which is usually 30 days after the card is opened by the thief. This is why you are encouraged to call one of the credit bureaus to have them flag your accounts within two days of discovering your ID theft and get free credit reports from them to see if any cards have been created without your permission. If this occurs after the credit bureaus have flagged your accounts then the two day grace period begins from this new discovery. You can let the credit card company know what day the credit bureaus called to check and see if it's you who is trying to take out credit in your name. If the thief is successful in getting the credit card you are back to only owing $50.00 per credit card that was taken out using your ID. You are also entitled to any information on the thief that the credit card company may have acquired when the thief attempted to open the credit card in your name.
It can be overwhelming and hard to understand. These few efforts to protect your credit are well worth it because you know you are doing all you can to protect it. Applying for loans to get a new home or car or other things you do to build good credit can be done with a lot less hassle than what happens if you neglect to do this. This can include writing letters of explanation to the three credit bureaus to explain bad credit reports due to some thief living it up in your name or having to get a new SSN.
Other ways to protect yourself from ID theft is to use a Federal Tax Id number. It’s free, all you have to do is call the IRS and answer a few simple questions. Companies that you work for can accept it in lieu of a Social Security Number.
Place a permanent fraud alert on your credit report if you are willing to pay for it. In most cases, this can be a deductible expense and it’s much cheaper to pay for this protection rather than having to deal with identity theft.
More facts on this crime can be found here (PDF):
There are Federal laws in place too. You can find a summary of them here: