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Combat Identity Theft With Alertness And Preventive Steps

John Cullum, Principal, Bell and Company

Most people today are familiar with the term identity theft, however, 20 years ago it was not a concern to most individuals and businesses in the United States.

The rise of the information age and the way bad guys can use modern tools have made identity theft a serious matter. It was not until 1996 that Arizona became the first state to recognize it as a crime. The criminal may not always wear a mask. It can be a friend or a relative.

There are many forms of identity theft. Fraudsters use a taxpayer’s information to apply for tax refunds in the victim’s name. The IRS sends a refund based on the first return filed, and the victim may not know this theft occurred until he tries to file a return and the IRS rejects the electronic filing.

Fraudsters will also try to obtain personal information to obtain loans or credit cards in a victim's name. Increasingly they are stealing the identity of children under legal age. This act of identity theft may not reveal itself for many years and is not discovered until the child is applying for a student loan and issues emerge on the child’s credit report.

Medical identity theft occurs when the bad guy adopts the identity of someone with medical insurance to obtain treatment and/or medications.

Criminals may use a stolen identity if they are arrested for a crime. An innocent person could wind up with a police record. Other methods of identity theft are limited only to the imagination of the bad guy.

The people committing identity theft use many methods to obtain their information. One of the oldest is to steal someone’s mail, or the thief may do some dumpster diving to find vital documents.

A stolen wallet or purse can give the thieves a lot of information. They can get your driver's license, credit card, medical insurance cards, social security number and so on. You may want to limit how much you carry in your wallet.  Do you really need to carry six credit cards?

Criminals surf the internet. Information from a social website, such as Facebook, can give the thief the names of children, your spouse, birthday and anniversary dates or your address. A simple Google search of a person’s name may give the thief the name of your employer or your occupation. He can go to another information site, enter those known facts and mine additional information.

Knowing a few additional details connected with your name can be used at other websites to develop your profile further. It is a little scary to know that these sites are free searches and some of the information is deemed “public record”.

Phishing is a technique where the thief may want you to respond to an email. You may receive a message that claims to be from your bank, credit card company, the IRS, or tells you that you won a prize. Then you are asked to supply bank account or credit card numbers and passwords.

You should also beware of free public wifi networks. These free wifi networks are available at restaurants, airports or hotels. There are electronic devices sold on the internet that can read other devices using the network, and the thief could be using it as a portal to your electronic information.

Skimmers can also be obtained over the internet. These can read the magnetic strip on a credit card and record the information. Skimmers can be set up at ATMs or on credit card machines to collect the information. Thieves sometimes will hire people to skim credit cards as a part of their work. A waiter or clerk may be offered a couple of dollars for each credit card they can skim, and then turn the device back over to the thief. Sites on “the dark web” offer credit card numbers for sale. Possession of skimmers is now a violation of Arkansas law.

Preventing identity theft is almost impossible. The crooks work very hard trying to get your information, and a lot of information is already out there. Prevention is being aware that you could be exposing your identity. Just as you were taught to look both ways before crossing a street, you should also know there are many things that should send up red flags. Never give out personal information to someone you do not know; beware of the deals that are “too good to be true;” do not respond to emails from unknown sources; review EOB statements from your doctor; check your credit card bill for unauthorized charges; reconcile your bank statement; put a firewall and virus protection on your computer; cover the keypad with your hand when entering a PIN; be wary of phone calls telling you that you need to send payments immediately for unpaid taxes, debt collectors for unrecognized debts, or to bail a relative out of jail.

If you are the victim of an identity theft you will need to take several steps. File a police report. Even if you subscribe to one of the various identity protection services, they usually want this first step taken. Contact the credit unions to file a fraud alert on your credit report. TransUnion is at www.transunion.com or (800) 888-4213, Experian is at www.experian.com or (888) EXPERIAN (397-3742), and Equifax is at www.equifax.com or (800) 685-1111. Call the Social Security Hotline at (800) 272-1213.

If the theft involves your tax information, the IRS has Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit, and they can be called at (855) 807-5720. Make a list of your credit cards and the customer service number. If your card was stolen, you cannot look on the back of the card for that information. Fraudulent charges on a credit card need to be disputed within 30 days of receiving your monthly statement. Your loss limit is normally $50 on a credit card, but this protection does not normally extend to debit cards. 

It is very important is that you document everything. Who did you call? When did you call? Keep documents related to the theft and organize them for referencing later.

Restoring your life as it was before the identity theft may take time, and it is best to have the documents at hand rather than relying on your memory of the details. 

 

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