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Identity Theft Is on the Rise, So Protect Yourself

June 01, 2002

The Internet has become a hotbed for illegal credit card activity. Thieves use stolen identity information to make online purchases and open new credit card accounts. Victims are generally not held liable for fraudulent charges, but do have to cope with the difficulties of removing them. KAREN KARLITZ spoke with an FBI agent about what's being done to mitigate this growing problem.

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FRANK HARRILL,

special agent, FBI computer crime squad, Los Angeles

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The Internet offers a means of relatively anonymous communication that provides a conduit for the faceless exchange of stolen credit card information. This has created a much more conducive environment for criminals, with the sale of credit card and personal information taking on an almost marketplace-like atmosphere. It also broadens criminals' potential market worldwide. People anywhere in the world can reach out and touch U.S. commerce without ever setting foot in our country.

There have always been those who could engineer their way into company records, but what we're seeing now is the ability to steal entire databases. Never before could someone walk away with all that information.

Through sophisticated investigative techniques, the FBI is confronting an old form of crime--fraud--being done in a high-tech way. Squads specializing in computer crime are now in every FBI field office. Agents have an in-depth knowledge of computers and operating systems. They learn to recognize markers that can point to who is behind a particular event. These markers leave a trail as compelling as fingerprints, videotape or eyewitness accounts, and we have had some success in bringing people to justice.

My feeling is that people shouldn't avoid online transactions but should take steps to lessen the risk of becoming a victim. It starts with not revealing personal information. Social Security numbers and dates of birth are the most dangerous to divulge. The confluence of these two things really defines a person. Of course, there are legitimate times when this information must be given.

It's a good idea to get a copy of your credit report every year and account for all activity on the report. For a small fee, these reports are available from Equifax, (800) 685-1111; Experian, (888) 397-3742, or Transunion, (800) 888-4213.

On a monthly basis, credit card bills should be scrutinized. Keep in mind that fraudulent charges are not necessarily large amounts.

Another potential source for compromise are preapproved credit card offers. The checks that come with these offers often fall into the wrong hands. You can remove yourself from these mailing lists by calling (888) 5OPTOUT (567-8688).

Protecting yourself online is knowing who you are dealing with. Stay away from anything that sounds too good to be true, any solicitation you didn't initiate or any requests for credit card numbers or information updates that don't come from a trusted source.

Last, install a firewall (software that monitors incoming and outgoing traffic from your personal computer) to prevent hackers from controlling your home system.

If you are a victim of credit card fraud, you can obtain a fraud alert through the three credit bureaus mentioned. This assures that for a set time no new accounts can be opened without your approval.

If you think your identity has been compromised or your credit card lost or stolen, the thing to do is act fast. Cancel your cards, change your driver's license number and call your local police department. If the loss exceeds $1,000, call the FBI's main number, (310) 477-6565.

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