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PROTECTING YOUR IDENTITY
Advice from FBI Agent Jeff Lanza

08/21/06

Photograph of FBI Agent Jeff Lanza

“I’ve always wanted a plasma television. High-def, of course. I think I’ll buy the most expensive model I can find. Why should I worry about what it costs? It’s free, at least for me.”

Sadly, this scenario or ones like it occur at least 3,000 times a day in this country. Cost is no object for the identity thief, because the bills are in the victim’s name and if you happen to be that person, you will be spending a lot of time trying to clean up the mess the thief made of your credit.

Identity theft occurs when someone becomes you. What’s the motivation for this surreptitious subrogation? Of course in most cases, it’s financial gain, but perpetrators also use false identities to get a job, to get healthcare, or to commit a different crime.

But for any of that to happen, the crook first needs to know your personal information. Your name, home address, and birth date provide a good start and are readily available in many easily searchable public databases. Your social security number, which is a more difficult identifier to steal and is also the key to unlocking your credit, is so important to an identity thief that you must go out of our way to protect it.

How do thieves learn enough about you to become you? It runs the gamut from old-fashioned theft to high-tech hacking.

They might steal your wallet or purse. They might snatch your mail. They might invade your trash. They might watch or listen for your personal information while you’re shopping or on your cell phone.

So much for the old school methods. Some new approaches include hiding software on your computer to log your keystrokes. Or trying to “phish” you with bogus e-mails about problems in your account or phony offers of free goods or prizes. Keep in mind that clicking on the embedded link will take you directly to that crook’s website, where they will try to “pharm” your personal data.

Thieves also target organizations that have your personal information. Who has it? Just about everybody. Your bank, school, employer, doctor, merchant, utilities, and brokerage, to name a few. And don’t forget about government agencies. How do they get it? They might bribe an employee, steal it, hack into it or stumble upon it on an unprotected laptop stolen from a house or a car.

We’re all vulnerable to identity theft—that’s the bad news. The good news is that you can protect yourself. First, don’t carry your social security number on any documents in your purse or wallet; change your driver’s license or any other documents to different numbers. Next, lock your mailbox and be sure to stop mail when you’re out of town for more than a few days. Shred your trash with a cross cut shredder. Be careful what you say about yourself in public—especially when you’re on your cell phone. Finally, you can protect your computer with a fire-wall, anti-virus software, or a program that removes spyware.

Since you can’t protect information that is in the hands of a myriad of organizations, you must monitor your credit reports. If someone has stolen your identity to open a new account, it should show up as an entry into one or more of the three reporting agencies that keep track of your credit history. All of them—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—monitor your credit, and you’re entitled to one free report per year from each agency. Getting this report will at least give you a snapshot view of the security of your identity. For even more protection, you might consider a credit monitoring service that will alert you when there’s an entry in your credit file.

If you do have your identity stolen or lose something vital like your purse or wallet, take action immediately. Call any one of the three credit reporting agencies and put a fraud alert on your account. If accounts have already been opened, file a police report immediately and contact each creditor to tell them you’ve been victimized.

Remember it’s much easier to stop the shopping spree before it ever begins.

As published in Ingram’s Magazine, July 2006.