Herald JournalHerald Journal, Feb. 3, 2003

Identity theft is easier, closer than most think

By Lynda Jensen

The spooky feeling of having a thief pretend to be you is something that local residents may think is unlikely ­ but criminals are finding Minnesota easy pickings for identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

And the likelihood of being a victim is going up fast, according to the Minnesota Bankers Association.

Identity theft, or the misuse of personal information for financial gain is making Minnesota one of the top 10 states for the crime, according to the FTC.

Both local banks, Security State Bank of Howard Lake, and Citizens State Bank of Waverly, have procedures in place to deal with identity theft, but the crime is very hard to detect without vigilance from the bank patron.

In fact, Citizens was instrumental in discovering an identity theft case for one of its customers last year, commented Kent Houston of the bank.

The patron spent a great deal of time and money restoring her credit and good name, but it was an ordeal for her . . . plus it was "eery to think that someone is pretending to be you," Houston said.

Houston warned people to be careful about volunteering information from unsolicited callers.

"Make sure you know who you are dealing with," Houston said. "If you have a question, find out," he said.

The staff at Security State Bank discuss the subject regularly, commented Megan Edwards of the Security State Bank. There are several precautions that Security takes to protect its patrons, she said.

The crime is closer than most people think.

In fact, evidence of identity theft is within Wright County, as evident by the recent rash of serial mailbox thefts near Buffalo, reported by the Wright County Sheriff's Department.

Unfortunately, victims don't normally detect the crime until a year after the event, with 12.5 months being the average time that elapsed between the date identity theft began and the date it was discovered by the consumer, according to the FTC.

Identity theft does not favor any age group ­ in fact, anyone can be a victim, both young and old.

In fact, police departments may be reluctant to write a report on this type of crime. In most cases, the victim has the responsibility to prove his/her innocence. (Identity Theft Survival Kit: A Complete Package for Restoring Your Credit and Peace of Mind, Mari J. Frank, Esq., 1998)

According to the FTC, the most common types of identity theft complaints reported to authorities are:

Credit Card Fraud - Credit cards are opened in a victim's name or unauthorized charges made to an existing card.

Unauthorized Phone or Utility Services - New telephone, cellular, or another utility service is established in a victim's name.

Bank Fraud - A new bank account is opened in a victim's name, fraudulent checks are written or unauthorized withdrawals made from an account.

Fraudulent Loans - Personal, business, auto or real estate loans are obtained in a victim's name.

Government Document or Benefits - Access is gained to a victim's government documents, such as his/her driver's license or Social Security Number; a tax return is filed fraudulently or government benefits are obtained through fraudulent means.

There are several tips from the Minnesota Banker's Association that consumers can practice to help against identity theft:

· Anyone can access your account by simply using your password. Protect your passwords like you would the Personal Identification Number to your bankcards.

Be especially suspicious if someone claiming to be with the company from whom you have a password asks for it ­ they should already have it!

· Don't create passwords that are similar to your real name.

· Check your credit rating once a year.

· Never keep your Social Security number in your wallet. Don't print your Social Security number on your checks.

Don't provide your Social Security number or personal credit information to anyone over the phone unless you have initiated the call and are familiar with the business.

Tear up or shred all credit card receipts, bank statements and credit card offers before throwing them in the trash or recycling them.

Protect your bank and credit card Personal Identification Numbers (PlNs) and other passwords by changing them frequently, not using your Social Security number or birth date as your PIN, and not writing your PIN on your card.

· Check through your credit card and bank statements carefully and immediately report any unusual activity.

· Cancel unused credit cards in addition to properly disposing of them.

· Never type your credit card account number on the Internet unless you are on a secure site.

· Change your password often.

· Don't store your passwords near your computer or on your desk.

· If you get an e-mail that looks like it's from your Internet service provider or someone else with whom you have an account asking to confirm your password, don't respond until you've checked with the company directly.

· E-mail isn't private. Don't discuss things you consider to be very sensitive or send information like credit card numbers through e-mail.

· You can use e-mail cryptography software to scramble your messages in a private code to make them more secure.

· To prevent others from getting into your e-mail, close your e-mail program when you're not using it.

· To reduce the amount of unsolicited e-mail you receive in your main inbox, consider using two e-mail addresses, one when you are communicating with friends and colleagues, the other when you are dealing with companies or organizations.

· There are tools to help you weed out unwanted e-mail. Some e-mail packages and online services offer filtering programs that allow only messages from users or about services you've approved in advance.

· Sending spam usually violates online service agreements. To identify the service provider in order to make a complaint, look at the "domain name" that follows the ­ sign in the sender's e-mail address.

· Look for privacy policies on the web sites you visit to see if they enable you to control whether you will receive e-mails from that Web site or from others with whom your contact information might be shared.

· Look at the privacy policy to see how companies restrict their employees' access to your personal transaction data.

· Some Web sites you visit may wish to contact you via e-mail to send you information. You should be asked if you want these communications and should have ability not to receive them if you wish.

· Privacy policies also should tell you how you can find out what information has been collected about you and how you can correct inaccurate information.

· There are software tools to help you determine whether a web site's privacy policies satisfy your concerns for how you want your information to be handled.

· Some web sites display symbols showing that they belong to privacy self-regulation programs. To find out how the program works and what it requires participants to do, click on the symbol or name of the program and go to its web site. There also may be information on the site about how to complain if you believe that a member has violated the requirements.

· Keep in mind that if you don't see any statement about privacy on a web site, you can't tell whether it will collect information about you or how that information will be used.

How do credit card companies get your name? (Hint: It's not the bank)

Don't assume the bank is selling personal information if you receive a regular boxful of solicitations for pre-approved credit cards, said Debra Hurston, Director of Communications and Community Affairs.

"Your bank would have to let you know in advance if it planned to share your information with a third party," she said.

"It is far more likely that one of the major credit bureaus sold your personal information to those credit card companies," she said. The three credit bureaus are allowed to sell pre-screened customer lists for "marketing purposes" Hurston said, which in turn allows the credit card companies to solicit business this way.

For identity theft, all a criminal needs is your name, address, and social security number to commit the crime. Pre-approved credit card offers, when they are thrown away and not shredded, may contribute to the problem, according to the Bankers Association.

To instruct the credit bureaus to remove your name from their marketing lists resold to companies, call 1-888-5OPT OUT (the "opt out" is referring to those customers who wish to opt out of the marketing lists).

"Reduce access to your personal information by removing yourself from direct mailing lists at the three credit reporting bureaus. Deleting your name ensures that it won't be sold to credit card companies or other institutions that could use it on a direct mail list. Add your name to the Direct Marketing Associations Mail Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service, marking your name as deleted," Hurston said.

Keep a list of all credit cards, account numbers, expiration dates and customer service or fraud department telephone numbers in a secure place away from the cards for easy access if you need them.

The following is contact information for the three credit bureaus:

Equifax - www.equifax.com

To order your report, call: 1-800-685-1111 or write: P.O. Box 740241 Atlanta, GA 30374-0241. To report fraud, call: 1-800-525-6285 and write: P.O. Box 740241 Atlanta, GA 30374-0241.

Experian - www.experian.com

To order your report, call: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742) or write: P.O. Box 2104 Allen, TX 75013 To report fraud, call: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742) and write: P.O. Box 9532 Allen, TX 75013.

Trans Union - www.tuc.com

To order your report, call: 1-800-916-8800 or write: P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022 To report fraud, call: 1-800-680-7289 or write: Fraud Victim Assistance Division P.O. 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834.

The Federal Trade Commission's identity theft hot line is 1-877-ID Theft or online at www.consumer.gov/idtheft/.

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