The lost-wallet panic, having a credit card rejected unexpectedly or being the victim of a pickpocket can make you realize the value of credit cards or a driver’s license in the hands of a thief. Such problems can destroy a credit rating, deplete savings and make it impossible to pay essential bills, yet millions of Americans voluntarily hand that precious information to strangers every day.
Identity theft is stealing money or getting other benefits by pretending to be another person. By next year the FBI and other governmental agencies estimate that one in 10 Americans will be targeted for identity theft, according to Wayne Ivey.
A 27-year law enforcement veteran who provides law enforcement officials with identity theft training, Ivey says no one is immune. He’s the perfect example.
“A number of years ago I was working nothing but identity theft (cases) and I went into a little mom-andpop golf shop to buy a golf bag,” he says. “I used a MasterCard debit card … for the purchase on a Friday. Monday I went to take some money out of the bank (and) there was no money.”
The bank discovered numerous transactions over the weekend. Ivey hadn’t used his card, but he had a good idea who could have. A return to the golf shop led to a confession from the clerk who handled the purchase; he was ultimately found to be responsible for almost $10,000 in credit card fraud using a host of credit cards.
“He was doing it the old-fashioned way, taking the carbon copy of my receipt and taking the credit card number off there,” Ivey says. “It was a 19-year-old kid.”
A new fangled method is called “skimming.” An electronic skimmer captures the magnetic coding on the back of the credit card when it’s swiped. Some skimmers can hold data from 100 or more credit cards that’s then downloaded to a computer and can be put onto a cloned credit card ready for use or sold to the highest bidder.
“It happens in restaurants, hotels, travel agencies, rental car places … any place where you can lose sight of your credit card for a split-second it can happen,” Ivey says. “Until you get your next credit card statement and very carefully review it, you’re probably not going to know you’ve been the victim of a skimmed credit card.”
But the problem doesn’t stop there
Personal information also is spread all over the place. The video store wants a driver’s license number, social security number and credit card number in case you don’t return your movies; they say the information is used to track you down so you can be reimbursed.
Where are those paper applications stored at the video shop? If they’re locked up, who has a key that would allow access? What kind of safeguards are in place to prevent an unscrupulous employee from getting his hands on that information?
Now multiply those questions by every credit card application, employment application, payroll record, school registration, bank account, bureau of motor vehicles for every state you’ve called home and every other government agency, company and organization to whom you’ve given personal information. The lack of protection for that sensitive information can pose an irresistible temptation.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission study documenting fraud and identify theft states that Ohio reported 7,178 cases of identity theft in 2007. The most frequent types of theft were phone or utilities fraud, credit card fraud, bank fraud, government documents of benefits fraud, employment-related fraud and loan fraud.
Ivey, who now works for LifeLock, a company that offers identity theft protection services, says there’s a wealth of information available about how to protect your identity.
“There’s someone willing to sell your information for their own benefit,” Ivey says. “That’s what’s driving this crime: the availability of information and the fact that technology opens up so many doors for it to be used by and accessed.
“There is a human being that processes your information. If they have the criminal intent to take your information and use it themselves or sell it to someone, you’re vulnerable to it. The answer to this is education and awareness.”
Get and review copies of your credit report on a regular basis. Everyone is entitled to one free credit report each year. Vendors are:
Equifax: 800-525-6285 or www.equifax.com
Experian: 888-397-3742 or www.experian.com
TransUnion: 800-680-7289 or www.transunion.com
• Shred old documents.
• Store sensitive information in a secure place.
• Monitor your mail: If mail suddenly stops being delivered or pieces of mail are missing, someone might have filed a change of address with the U.S. Postal Service.
• Choose intricate passwords used for access to all information: bank accounts, credit cards, cell phone, etc.
• Keep key card(s) from the hotel, take them home and cut them up to destroy any information that’s encoded on the magnetic strip on the back.
• Transactions made online are only as safe as the reputation of that company and the depth of the back ground check done on the employee handling the information.For more information about how to protect your identity, file a report if you believe your identity has been stolen and correct the damage done to your credit, visit the Identity Theft Web page of the Federal Trade Commission.