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Americans' top complaint: Identity theft

Identity thieves are finding new ways to snatch your good name. They prowl job boards and hack into mainframes in search of new victims.

The new tricks are adding more names to the millions a year who have their identities taken.

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Monster.com, a popular online job search site is warning its users of the potential for identity fraud when responding to a job posting. It appears some theives are posing as legitimate employers when all they really want is to snag some personal information.

Even celebrities aren't immune. Talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey, founder of CNN Ted Turner, actor Will Smith, pro-golfer Tiger Woods and director Steven Spielberg have had their identities stolen. The FBI is currently investigating the possible theft of 8 million credit card numbers that were exposed when a hacker broke into the computer system of a company that processes credit card transactions.

The University of Texas discovered that the names, Social Security numbers and e-mail addresses of more than 55,000 students, alumni and employees of the university were compromised when a hacker broke into the university's computer system in February.

The list goes on.

Victim arrested
Celebrities have the advantages of money and power to clear their name. But what would happen if you became a victim? In the worst-case scenario, you could be imprisoned for crimes you never committed -- like Derek Bond.

Bond, a 72 year-old British man, was imprisoned for two weeks in South Africa last February after the FBI wrongly identified him as a wanted fugitive. He was freed when the real fugitive was arrested in Las Vegas. The U.S. Attorney's Office believes this crook had been using Bond's identity as far back as 1989.

How it happens
Criminals need very little information to steal your identity. With your Social Security number they can apply for credit cards, cell phones, loans, bank accounts, apartments and utility accounts.

Your garbage holds a plethora of information. Once your Social Security number or an account number hits the dumpster, your identity is floating among the discarded tea bags and orange peels, just waiting to be stolen.

Think about how many places you have written your Social Security number: rental car applications, college tests, the doctor's office, apartment applications and job applications. Many agencies that do not need your SSN request it anyway. We've even heard of a veterinary office that requested that information to treat a pet. Assuming all the people you give your Social Security number to are honest, you're still at risk when they throw away your application.

What else are you throwing away?
Do you toss out your bank and credit card statements without shredding them? What about your credit card receipts or the hoards of pre-approved credit card offers you receive in the mail? If so, what's to stop a criminal from applying for that card in your name? Buy a shredder.

Guilty 'til proven innocent
One of the most frustrating aspects of identity theft is that, unlike other crimes in the United States, victims are guilty until proven innocent. Victims are responsibile for clearing their names and protesting fraudulent debts.

Most of the means that Americans have to protect themselves are retroactive -- controlling what damage they can once they realize their identity has been stolen. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are trying to change that.

In January they re-introduced the Social Security Number Misuse Prevention Act. If the act becomes law, it would remove SSNs from government checks, marriage licenses, public records and other legal documents.

The State of California has taken identity protection one step further by giving residents the right to lock down their credit reports, which prevents anyone from applying for credit in their names. This new law also forbids businesses from printing Social Security numbers on identification cards or material mailed to customers.

Protection for everyone else
Americans outside of California cannot lock down their credit reports. They can place fraud alerts on their credit reports. A fraud alert is a request that you be called before credit is issued in your name. But, without a law to enforce this request, its power to protect you is questionable.

Another alternative Americans have is credit monitoring -- a service offered by all three credit agencies. The cost is from $45 to $80 per year and is only a retroactive protection -- notifying you when someone has applied for credit in your name. At that price, you may be better off checking your credit report yourself at a cost of no more than $9 each.

Why you should check your credit report
One of the most frightening aspects of identity theft is that victims often are oblivious to what's happening until it all crashes down. If someone has applied for credit or a form of identification such as a passport or driver's license in your name, but provided a different address, you won't know what's happened until the collections agencies come looking for you. In the worst-case scenario, you'll get arrested like Bond.

If Mr. Bond had checked his credit report, he might have noticed discrepancies such as an incorrect address or credit cards he never applied for. As it was, he spent two weeks sleeping on a concrete floor.

Experts recommend that you order your credit report with all three agencies every six months to check for discrepancies.


-- Updated: April 3, 2003




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