National, local events are signs of the times
Published 9:55 am Monday, January 5, 2009
By By Jo Bonner
With rising unemployment rates, crumbling credit markets, and giant companies failing, it is no secret that our economy is in uncharted territory.
Sadly, as the old adage goes, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” Crimes like petty theft and vandalism are on the rise, and even Christmas trees were not safe during this holiday season; police across the country had reports of Christmas trees being swiped right off the commercial lots.
Last month’s revelation of Bernard Madoff’s alleged $50 billion fraud scheme, in which he swindled the likes of Steven Spielberg and Mort Zuckerman, shows that we all can be exploited, and we all need to be on heightened alert.
Unfortunately, identity theft - in which thieves use your personal information to open credit card accounts in your name, apply for utilities in your name, borrow money in your name, or even make major purchases in your name - is seemingly becoming the crime du jour.
When a person’s identity is stolen, their reputation can be destroyed, their sense of security shattered, and their life savings completely wiped out.
While nothing can guarantee that you will never become a victim of identity theft, there are certainly ways to minimize both your risk and the damage that can be done if someone uses your personal information. The best advice is to make it as difficult as possible for thieves to access your personal information, including your Social Security number, charge receipts, insurance forms, and bank statements.
Many times thieves obtain this information by going through trash, so always shred (and at the very least tear) mail and other documents you are discarding.
Without question, the Internet has made our daily lives much easier. Who would have thought just 15 years ago we would be able to pay our bills, do our grocery shopping and buy movie tickets all with the click of a mouse and all without leaving home? Unfortunately, what often makes our lives easier also opens doors for criminals.
Place passwords on your online credit card, bank and phone accounts and avoid using easily available information such as your mother’s maiden name, your birth date or the last four digits of your Social Security number as your password.
Do not give out personal information unless it is to a trusted source or you are the one who has initiated the contact. All too often, identity thieves pose as bank representatives, Internet service providers or government agencies in order to get people to disclose identifying information.
Never give out personal information over the Internet unless you are using a secure Web site. One way to determine whether a Web site is secure is to look at the beginning of the web address in your browser’s address bar - it should say “https://” instead of “http://.”
In the unfortunate event that you do become a victim of identity theft, you should follow these three steps as soon as possible, and be sure to keep a detailed record of your conversations as well as copies of all correspondence.
First, contact your bank to place a fraud alert on your credit reports, and review your credit reports. A fraud alert can help prevent an identity thief from opening any more accounts in your name.
You can contact the toll-free fraud number of any of the three consumer reporting companies (Equifax: 1-800-525-6285, Experian 1-800-397-3742, TransUnion 1-800-680-7289). The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their reports, as well.
Second, close the accounts that you know, or believe, have been tampered with or opened fraudulently by calling those companies directly. You should also follow-up in writing with letters sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, in order to document what was received and when.
Once the company has resolved the dispute, request a letter stating the disputed accounts have been closed and the fraudulent charges dismissed.
Third, file a report with your local police and the Federal Trade Commission, which can be reached by calling 1-877-ID-THEFT.
Many creditors will require you to provide them with a police report to document the crime, so it is important to contact law enforcement as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, there is no way to be completely protected from becoming a victim of identity theft. Check your credit report periodically.
You can request one free copy of your credit report from each nationwide consumer reporting agency once during a 12-month period by calling 1-877-322-8228 or visiting the Web site www.annualcreditreport.com. If you find anything on your report that should not be there, take action immediately.
My staff and I work for you. If we can ever be of service, do not hesitate to call my office toll free at 1-800-288-8721 or visit my Web site at http://bonner.house.gov.
Jo Bonner is a U.S. congressman. His column appears weekly.