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Protecting Your Good Name From Thieves

During the holidays consumers are more at risk from schemes using their identity and credit.

November 30, 2002|Kathy M. Kristof | Times Staff Writer

News this week that federal authorities uncovered what they described as the largest U.S. identity-theft case in history left many consumers wondering if they are at risk.

And with good reason. Tens of thousands of consumer credit reports were provided to a ring of New York-based identity thieves, according to authorities.

Victims of the scheme face substantial risks. Credit reports contain an array of personal data, including bank account information and credit card numbers, that can be used to drain checking accounts, apply for credit cards and even get new loans in the victim's name.

Consumers aren't liable for fraudulent charges, but sometimes it can take years to repair the damage an identity thief can do to a person's credit record.

The holiday season traditionally is when consumers are at greatest risk of being victimized. Holiday shoppers are vulnerable to losing wallets and credit cards to pickpockets, while at the same time retailers are pushing "instant credit" that can be secured easily with the information in the average consumer's wallet.

Here's a look at who's at risk from identity theft and what can be done to prevent it -- or recover from it.

Question: What is identity theft?

Answer: Identity theft usually involves a criminal using personal information to apply for credit cards or other loans in the victim's name. Typically, the criminal will run up thousands of dollars in charges and then disappear, leaving the real consumer to fight with creditors, collection agents and credit-reporting agencies after the crime has been discovered.

Increasingly, hardened criminals also are using identity theft to hide their real identities while committing more serious crimes, said James Vaules, chief executive of the National Fraud Center, a Philadelphia company that designs computer systems to thwart identity theft.

"Traditionally, we looked at identity theft as a financial crime," he said.

"But it's used in all types of criminal activity today, whether that's fraud or terrorism or drugs."

Q: How do you know if someone is using your identity?

A: Usually you don't, said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Victims typically find out that their identity has been stolen about 14 months after the fact, she said.

At that point, the fraud is discovered because the real consumer has been denied credit because of defaults caused by the criminal, or the consumer learns of the fraud from a collection agent hoping to collect on the criminal's debts.

Q: How can you defend against identity theft?

A: Guard your credit cards and, most importantly, your Social Security number -- the key to virtually all other private personal data.

Don't carry a Social Security card in your wallet -- it's not needed to conduct any retail transaction, said Leslie Walker, spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration in San Francisco.

But if your number is taken by a criminal, it can be used to obtain credit cards, open bank accounts and to apply for auto loans or to create fake identification papers.

Q: You think you may be a victim of identity theft -- now what?

A: The first step is to call the three major credit bureaus and get a copy of your credit report. If you believe you are an identity-theft victim, the report will be provided for free. If not, there's a charge of $8 to $10.

Check the entries on the report and call the credit bureau immediately if you notice accounts that do not belong to you.

Other warning signs are addresses listed on the report that are not yours or a spate of recent "inquiries," which can be precursors to issuing new credit that hasn't shown up yet on the report.

Q: What can the credit bureau do?

A: The credit bureau should do two things: put a "fraud alert" on your file, which will require credit grantors to call you before issuing new credit in your name, and send you forms to dispute the inaccurate items.

Q: Should I notify the police?

A: Yes. In many instances, the only way to have fraudulent entries erased from your credit record is to supply the credit grantor with a copy of a police report verifying the identity theft.

You also may want to call the Federal Trade Commission's identity-fraud hotline to obtain more information about ways to repair credit damaged by identity theft.

*

Where to turn in case of ID theft:

If you suspect you're a victim of identity fraud, get a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus:

* Equifax: (800) 525-6285

* Experian: (888) 397-3742

* TransUnion: (800) 680-7289

For tips on credit repair, call the Federal Trade Commission's identity-fraud hotline at (877) ID-THEFT.

Source: Times research

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