Your Online I.D. Who's Got It?

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Last year, identity theft complaints ranked number one on the Federal Trade Commission's Top Ten List of Consumer Complaints for the third consecutive year. In fact, 43% of all consumer complaints in 2002 regarded the hijacking or misappropriation of someone's identity or personal information in order to steal money or commit fraud. While identity theft is certainly not new, the Internet has added a new tool to the mix. In other words, the crime's the same-only the weapon has changed.

In past issues of this newsletter we've offered many tips to keep you safe online. (See our Article Archives, or go specifically to Email Attack? Fight Back, How to Choose a Password or Safe Online Shopping Tips.) But since the FTC reports that these complaints have nearly doubled in the last year, we wanted to offer a more in-depth article on what you can do to protect yourself from online identity theft, and what you should do if you become a victim.

How Did They Get My Personal Information?

There are a variety of ways-both low- and high-tech-that skilled identity thieves can gain access to your personal data online. In general, be very aware of any form you fill out online that asks for personal information, such as driver's license number, Social Security number, date of birth, etc. Following are just a few examples of questionable forms that need a closer look:

  • Many online sweepstakes and contests are set up merely to glean information, with no prizes ever being awarded-except to the con artists who come away with hard drives full of priceless data.
  • With April 15 fast approaching, be certain to check the background of any online tax preparers you may be using, as your tax forms are loaded with personal and consequential data.
  • Online job applications that promise unbelievable employment opportunities (especially those that come in unsolicited email) are usually just that-unbelievable. Don't believe their claims and don't give them your Social Security and checking account numbers so they can deposit your as-yet unearned paychecks.
  • Be very suspicious of all requests for "updated" information. PC World advises that if a company already has your information, don't give it out again without confirming the validity of the request, especially if the email message includes a link allegedly to the company's website. Counterfeit sites are easy to create and are often convincing.

Since a high percentage of these questionable requests for your personal information come into your PC as unsolicited email, it's a good idea to install some form of email protection. Many email programs and ISPs offer varying types of email filters, but the best products will let you control what email messages you receive.

How Can I Minimize My Risk?

The Department of Justice offers this acronym- SCAM -to help reduce or minimize the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft or fraud.

S Be stingy about giving out your personal information online unless you know who you're dealing with, or unless you initiated the contact. Don't be fooled by email or messages supposedly from banks, ISPs, government agencies, or other organizations asking you to fill in your Social Security number, financial account numbers, or other identifying information.

C Check your financial information regularly. If you have bank or credit card accounts, be certain that you are receiving monthly statements, and then check through each statement carefully to be sure there are no unauthorized charges or withdrawals.

A Ask periodically for a copy of your credit report. The reports generally cost less than $10 and can be obtained in a variety of ways through the three major credit bureaus listed below:

Equifax - www.equifax.com
Call (800) 685-1111 or write
P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

Experian - www.experian.com
Call (888) 397-3742 or write
P.O. Box 2104, Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion - www.transunion.com
Call (800) 916-8800 or write
P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022

M Maintain good records of your banking and financial accounts, in case you need to dispute a particular check or transaction.

What Else Is at Risk?

Though not always financially devastating, a disconcerting new trend is also on the rise involving virtual identity theft, whereby spammers take over email user names and addresses to send out spam messages soliciting for porn sites or other commercial websites. The unknowing email account owner is then often bombarded with hate mail, and faces the loss of reputation as well as possible legal entanglement. The bad news is that anyone with an email account is a potential victim of user-name theft, but the good news is that user-name takeovers usually don't last long. AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham says, concerning virtual identity theft: "The best thing to do is to simply let it run its course, like a bad cold."

Is My Child Safe?

The fact that many personal identification documents are on public record and easy to obtain has given rise to a new wrinkle in the identity theft arena-child ID theft. Parenting magazine warns parents to be very cautious when giving out their child's Social Security number or personal information. In the past two years, over 20,000 cases of child ID theft have been reported to the FTC. Criminals who use stolen Social Security numbers and birth certificates to escape detection when committing crimes, realized early on that in the case of child ID theft, it often takes years to determine the fraud-possibly until the child is grown and applying for credit or for a job.

What Can I Do If I Suspect My I.D.'s Been Stolen?

Sometimes no matter how careful you've been with your personal information, an identity thief may strike. If you suspect that you've become a victim of identity theft or fraud, act immediately to minimize the damage to your personal funds and financial accounts, as well as your reputation, and keep a record of your conversations and correspondence. The DOJ suggests taking the following steps:

  • Contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to report the situation online, or call toll-free at 1-877-ID THEFT (877-438-4338) or TDD at 202-326-2502, or send mail to Consumer Response Center, FTC, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20580.
  • File a report with your local police department or the local office of the FBI or the U.S. Secret Service to report crimes relating to identity theft and fraud.

You may also need to contact other agencies for other types of identity theft:

  • Your local office of the Postal Inspection Service if you suspect that an identity thief has submitted a change-of-address form with the Post Office to redirect your mail, or has used the mail to commit frauds involving your identity;
  • The Social Security Administration if you suspect that your Social Security number is being fraudulently used (call 800-269-0271 to report the fraud);
  • The Internal Revenue Service if you suspect the improper use of identification information in connection with tax violations (call 1-800-829-0433 to report the violations).

Contact the fraud units of the three principal credit reporting companies:

  • Equifax: To report fraud, call (800) 525-6285 or write to P.O. Box 740250, Atlanta, GA 30374-0250.
  • Experian: To report fraud, call (888) 397-3742, fax to (800) 301-7196, or write to P.O. Box 1017, Allen, TX 75013.
  • TransUnion: To report fraud, call (800) 680-7289 or write to P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634.

Contact all creditors and financial institutions with whom your name or identifying data have been fraudulently used. For example, you may need to contact your long-distance telephone company if your long-distance calling card has been stolen or you find fraudulent charges on your bill. Or you may need to cancel bank accounts, place stop-payment orders on any outstanding checks that may not have cleared, and change your Automated Teller Machine (ATM) card, account, and Personal Identification Number (PIN).