Identity Theft – The Never Ending War

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by Doris Merrill, Special to the Roundup

The sun rises into another clear day, I gaze out at a tranquil view of geese and ducks on the reflective lake.

My last day of tranquility.

That afternoon, my doorbell rang. A FedEx man handed me a mailer that signaled the start of my personal war.

Inside, I found a Citibank credit card I’d never ordered with a limit of $15,000. I called the number on the back of the card and got a computer voice asking for my credit card and Social Security number. After I provided the numbers, the recorded voice said, “There were no activities or charges on my card.” Thank you very much!

I dialed again. This time I sought a real live person, who answered after a 15-minute wait. “How may I help you?” she asked.

“Yes, thank you, I did not apply for this credit card. Why was it sent to me?” I asked.

“Oh. I am looking at your application on my computer. You applied for it online.”

“I never did that.”

She asked: “Is this your address? Phone number? Social security number? Mothers maiden name?”

I answered “yes” to all her questions. “Except, I did not make out this application!”

“One of our fraud representative will call you back regarding this matter.”

I hung up with the shocked realization that someone out there had all my personal information.

I felt stunned. How did this happen to me? A mix of frustrated helplessness and anger gripped me.

I had fallen victim to identity theft, which now affects millions of Americans every day. I eventually was able to cancel the Citibank card, but that proved only the start of my problems.

The FBI Fraud Division and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports showed that approximately 12 million U.S. residents have become victims of identity theft. Retail businesses and banks have had financial losses of $50 billion this year alone.

TransUnion placed an “Identity Theft Alert” on my credit to stop issuance of pre-approved credit situations and giving out my personal credit reports. They also notified the other two credit bureaus — Equifax and Experian. They advised me to immediately make a police report.

Down at the police department, an officer said all they could do was file a report and give me a copy for my bank. This allowed the bank to place an “Identity Theft Alert” on my accounts so that only I could cash checks or withdraw money.

Several days later, I noticed my mail had stopped coming. The post office insisted I had put a hold on my mail, apparently by someone attempting to prevent me from discovering the identity theft.

The post office said the swindlers often follow up the hold with a change of address notification.

The lady at the post office gave me my held mail, which contained 16 credit cards with credit lines totaling more than $200,000! My identity theft war had just gained momentum! Full speed ahead! Arm the torpedoes!

I reported the latest incident to the police, who referred me to the FBI Fraud Division, since the scam now involved the mail.

After listening to my situation, the FBI wanted copies of everything. I spent the next two weeks canceling credit cards from all over the U.S.

I made copies of everything I had received and mailed them to the FBI Fraud Division. When you don’t know who, what, or where the enemy is! It can be difficult to win the war!

Meanwhile the phone calls started. The one I liked best: “You applied for a burial plot and plan insurance for death. We need to make an appointment with you.” After that, I canceled my phone and cell numbers.

The next serious attack came on the Internet. Someone had apparently hacked into my computer to watch me on my Web cam. A friend noticed the little yellow Web light at the top of my lap-top screen indicating my Web cam was on. I didn’t even know I had one: So I placed black tape over the camera and microphone.

Then I received an official looking notice “from the FBI Security Division” on my computer. The notice stated that I had been watching child pornography on my computer and must pay a fine immediately and froze my computer.

The computer specialist that restored my computer said it was a Trojan virus. I didn’t lose any files, but had to change all my passwords. The computer man suggested I join LifeLock or ID Force, feeling increasingly helpless, violated and exposed.

A year into the war, I still get new applications trying to use my credit information.

The sophistication of identity thieves continues to grow, as they hack into corporate and government databases to hijack personal information they can sell or use without a trace.

They use a variety of tricks to deceive customers in an attempt to get your name, address, cell phone numbers, Social Security and credit card numbers.

The scams now come at you through cell and landline phone service, cable and satellite television services, power, water, gas and electric service, Internet payment services, medical insurance, home mortgage, automobile, boat and other forms of financing and loans.

The 12 million cases of reported identity theft this year include efforts to use the identities of nearly 3 million dead people. Most cases involve the unauthorized use of existing credit cards, the unauthorized use of existing checking and savings accounts, and efforts to get new credit card accounts, bank loans, utilities, phones, or other debts.

We all pay for the billions of dollars in losses caused by identity theft. Unfortunately, the FTC reports that Arizona ranks No. 1 for identity theft, followed by California, Florida, Texas and Nevada. In two-thirds of cases, the consumer — not the financial institution — first notices the scam.

The FTC reports that many of the thefts involve personal information posted on Facebook and information stolen from the shopping Web sites. Since an estimated 68 percent of consumers use the same password and credit card on multiple Web sites, one theft can make multiple accounts vulnerable. Experts advise using prepaid credit cards for all Internet purchases.

Smart-phones also pose a risk since two-thirds of users do not use home screen log-in. People often also use easy to crack passwords involving birthday numbers, maiden names, pet names, address and phone numbers. Change your passwords often.

Also, don’t take out preapproved credit applications and shred receipts, mail, bills, statements that have your name and information.

Check your credit information. The Fair Credit Reporting Act provides a free copy once every 12 months. National reporting companies include Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

I never thought this could happen to me, but now not a day goes by without some unknown person trying to use my personal information to obtain credit.

The war continues.

Tips to Avoid ID Theft

• Report lost or stolen credit cards immediately.

• If you applied for a credit card and didn’t receive it when expected, call the financial institution.

• Sign new credit cards immediately.

• Memorize your Social Security number and passwords. Don’t use your date of birth as your password and don’t record passwords on papers you carry with you.

• Never leave transaction receipts at ATM machines, on counters at financial institutions, or at gasoline pumps.

• Don’t disclose credit card or other financial account numbers on a Web site unless the site offers a secure transaction. Before you input personal or financial information on a Web page, first make sure the site offers a secure — that is, encrypted — data transaction. There are two ways you can check whether a Web page provides a secure data transaction: 1) An icon of a lock will appear in the bottom strip of the Web browser page; 2) The URL for the Web page will change from “http” to “https” for the page at which you input the personal data.

• Match your credit card receipts against your monthly bills and check your monthly financial statements for accuracy.

Source: U.S. Postal Inspection Service

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