Identity Theft

by Jerri Collins, Former Assistant State Attorney
and County Court Judge, 18th Judicial Circuit

A seventy-eight-year-old widow named Harriet receives a certified letter from an attorney in California. The letter states that she owes over $12,000 to a credit card company, and the bill is in the hands of a collection agency. If she does not respond immediately to pay the money, her credit will be ruined and she may be forced to sell her belongings.

Distraught and scared, Harriet contacts the attorney in California. Unfortunately, more bad news is received. Harriet is told that someone has taken her personal information and has obtained 23 credit cards and has charged over $50,000 worth of merchandise on credit cards in her good name. Harriet has just learned that she is one of the 9.9 million people who fall victim each year to the crime of identity theft.

This is a true story (the victim's name has been changed to protect her privacy) and it happened in Seminole County. In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published its findings from an exhaustive investigation of the crime we have come to know as identity theft. The FTC estimates that $50 billion dollars per year is lost to this crime. It was determined that the more serious cases involve the opening of new accounts. The average loss to an individual victim when a new account has been opened was $10,200.

Yet, even with these disturbing numbers, most victims of identity theft do not report the crime to law enforcement. Only about twenty-five percent of victims report the crime to police. Older victims were less likely to report the crime. Sixty-six percent of the people over 65 years of age did not tell anyone.

The reasons given for not reporting the incident were embarrassment, fear of losing their independence, or simply not knowing with whom or where to make the report. Fortunately, Harriet did report the crime. She contacted her local police and an investigation was launched. The results may surprise you. Unbeknownst to Harriet, the crime had been on-going for five years. The person who stole her identity and committed this crime was no stranger; it was her 32-year-old granddaughter.

According to the FTC, the crime of identity theft will be committed by a family member ten percent of the time. In twenty-five percent of the cases, the victim will know the person who has committed the crime.

The police were able to trace the crime back to the time when Harriet had co-signed a car loan for her granddaughter. Credit card companies sent "pre-approved" credit card offers addressed to Harriet at the granddaughter's home address. The granddaughter fraudulently opened accounts using her grandmother's personal information (which was readily available to her).

How could Harriet have protected herself? There are several steps one can taken to lessen the chance of becoming a victim of identity theft. Over four thousand victims of identity theft were interviewed during the FTC investigation; they stated that the most important actions they could have taken would have been to:

Increase security precaution in handling personal information. If you don't have a shredder, get one. Shred all documents that contain personal information.

Clean house ... do you really need those ten-year-old power bills? Secure your personal documents at home and at work. Don't leave documents laying around that have personal information on them.

Maintain greater vigilance. It is important to monitor your mail. Know your billing cycles; learn what day of the month your bills arrive. Consider getting a post office box. If that proves too inconvenient, put a lock on your mailbox. Remember that the most common way to commit identity theft is still the old-fashioned way-stealing wallets, stealing purses, and burglaries.

Review credit reports. This is very important. Every person should obtain a credit report at least once a year. You can go to www.AnnualCreditReport.com and request free copies of your credit report.

You can also contact the three major credit reporting agencies for information and to make reports of identity theft. They are:
Equifax (1-800-525-6285) www.equifax.com
Experian (1-888-397-3742) www.experian.com
Transunion (1-800-680-7289) www.transunion.com

Another important resource is the Federal Trade Commission. The website is www.ftc.gov/idtheft and the number is (1-877-382-4357). This website offers information and resources along with steps to report identity theft.

Make sure that there are no unauthorized accounts opened in your name. Put an instant credit block on your account; this will prevent any new accounts from being opened in your name unless you are personally contacted.

Be discriminating about giving out information. Is it necessary to give out your social security number or date of birth in order to get a discount card from the grocery store? Ask yourself, "Why does this person need this information?"

Don't carry multiple credit cards in your wallet. Put the words "See I.D." on the back of your credit card instead of your signature. This will force the cashier to ask for proper identification before processing a charge. Report the crime immediately.

Call the Federal Trade Commission and call a credit reporting company. If you believe you have been a victim or could be a victim, the credit reporting company will put a fraud alert on your account. It is important to contact your credit card company by telephone as soon as possible. In addition, you must send the company written notice within 60 days of discovering the fraudulent charge.

Harriet's granddaughter was arrested and successfully prosecuted. She is currently in prison. She must reimburse the credit card companies for all the money that she stole. In the end, crime never pays.

Other links:
OnGuard Online
Federal Trade Commission - Free Annual Credit Report
To learn more about identity theft, watch this video from www.onguardonline.gov

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