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How to prevent identity theft

In 1996, Mari Frank had her identity stolen when a stranger went online and accessed her credit report. Ten months later, Frank, of Laguna Niguel, Calif., received a phone call from a creditor about "her" $11,000 debt. In total, she owed upward of $50,000, including charges for a red convertible the imposter bought in her name. The culprit even found Frank's business cards and impersonated her.

"I got weak in the knees," Frank says. "Then I got mad as hell and decided I wasn't going to take it any more."

So Frank set out to help victims of identity theft -- there are more than 750,000 each year. She founded identitytheft.org, a site that's chock full of useful information on how to prevent identity theft and how to deal with it when it happens to you.

"You may already be a victim of identity theft," says Frank, who estimates 25 percent of the American population has had its identity stolen at one time or another. The schemes range from stealing credit card numbers to renting apartments, buying cars and getting loans in someone else's name.

Frank offers advice on how to protect your identity online and offline:

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Offline tips

  • Shred your important papers. Don't just throw them out or rip them into pieces. Shredding is the best way to keep "dumpster divers" from obtaining credit card offers, receipts and other personal information from your trash.

  • Credit reporting agencies
    Trans Union
    (800) 888-4213
    P.O. Box 6790
    Fullerton, CA 92634
    (888) 397-3742
    P.O. Box 1017
    Allen, TX 75031
    (800) 685-1111
    P.O. Box 740250
    Atlanta, GA 30374-0250

    Opt out. Credit reporting agencies make billions of dollars each year by selling your information to credit card companies. You can have your name removed from the lists by calling (888) 5-OPT-OUT, or mail Frank's pre-written letter to the credit agencies.

  • Write letters to the companies you deal with asking that they do not share, trade, or sell your personal information. Your personal information changes hands more frequently now that the Glass-Steagall Act has been repealed.

  • Get your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies at least twice a year. You may catch fraudulent activity before you receive a call from creditors. If you're already a victim of fraud, you can get the report for free, otherwise the report costs no more than $8.25.

  • Protect your Social Security number. Don't have the number printed on your checks. Also, don't change your Social Security number if your identity has been stolen. You'll lose the credit you've built up, and it looks funny to creditors.

  • Don't fill out the information on warranty cards. There's no reason you should have to tell these people your life story, especially because they could sell that information.

  • Talk with your employer and your accountant about how your files are handled. Can just anyone access personal information from your files? Does your company protect its computers with firewalls? Where are your personnel files kept? Be careful with pay stubs as well. They contain all of your valuable information.

  • If you receive a call from a company asking for your credit card number or other personal information, just say "no!" This is a very popular scam.

Online tips

  • While shopping online, only buy from secure sites. Read a site's privacy policy about sharing your information. If you're uncomfortable with the policy, don't do business there. If you don't feel safe using its server, call in your order.

  • Delete cookies off your computer at the end of the day or week. Cookies create a profile of where you go on the Internet.

  • Use firewalls on your home computer so it can't be hacked. For more information on hacking and viruses read "Five hacking and virus protection tips."

  • Your e-mail is not safe. Don't put something in there you wouldn't write on a post card. Your e-mail and voice-mail at work are your company's property, so don't leave personal information on either system.

If you're a victim of identity theft

  • It's probably better to contact companies yourself. Many attorneys will not take identity theft cases because there is often no restitution from which they can be paid.

  • Try and settle an identity theft case whenever you can. Many law enforcement agencies do not consider identity theft crimes a high priority, so recover what you can.

  • If you are a victim of identity theft, talk quickly to credit card companies. Not only will you not have to pay the huge bills run up in your name, but the companies also probably will forgive the $50 in unauthorized charges cardholders are required to pay when someone steals their cards.

  • You can deduct your losses from fraud according to the 165E federal tax code. You can also deduct any books you purchase to help you solve the situation.

  • Contact these resources to report the fraud and fix the problem.

"As we get further into the new millennium," Frank warns, "our privacy is going to be nonexistent unless the consumers stand up and take control over their personal information."

Posted -- June 27, 2000

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