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Reclaiming your life from identity thieves

September 13, 2011|David Lazarus

You can't know how big a hassle it is to have your identity stolen until some scammer enters your life and starts taking over.

Michael Kalbs and his wife, Judy Rosen, learned this the hard way recently when they discovered that someone was applying for -- and receiving -- credit cards in Rosen's name and running up thousands of dollars in bills for gas and other everyday purchases.

Then they had to spend weeks untangling the mess with various banks, businesses and credit reporting companies.

An estimated 10 million Americans fall victim to ID theft every year, with related losses running in the billions of dollars. The Federal Trade Commission warned last month that fraudsters are increasingly snatching the Social Security numbers of children from school forms and using them to open credit card accounts.

"I have no idea how this happened to us," Kalbs, 72, of Sherman Oaks, told me. "We're not dumb. We're educated people. But when it does happen, it can be hell to get out of."

Pay attention now. What happened to Kalbs and his wife could easily happen to you.

First, Kalbs and Rosen were fortunate to have a credit-monitoring service keeping tabs on their files. The service, Privacy Assist from Bank of America, notifies you if there are any changes to your credit records.

Most people probably don't need their credit files reviewed on a daily basis. If you do sign up for such a service, make sure it's offered by a reputable outfit like a bank or one of the credit reporting companies.

"The best $12.99 a month I ever spent," Kalbs said. "Of everyone we had to deal with, the Privacy Assist people really seemed to care. They walked us through the whole process."

The first inkling of trouble came in June when Privacy Assist sent Kalbs and Rosen a notice that Rosen's credit file had been changed. Kalbs immediately went online and saw that his wife's address had been switched to a location in Illinois.

He also discovered that credit cards had been sent to that address by BofA, Chase, Wells Fargo and American Express, and that someone had been busy quickly running up tabs on each card.

So Kalbs set about doing what all ID theft victims have to do: Jumping through hoops to convince the world that you're really you. He and his wife filed a police report and then worked their way through the fraud divisions at each bank.

"It can be really time consuming," Kalbs said. "And frustrating."

I know what he means. When my ID was stolen a few years ago by a man in Connecticut, I spent weeks trying to get rid of him. Each ID theft victim spent an average of 59 hours last year recovering from the incident, up from 41 hours in 2009, according to consulting firm Javelin Strategy & Research.

Kalbs thought he and his wife finally had things under control last month, but then they started getting calls from Wells Fargo saying they still owed hundreds of dollars for a credit card that wasn't theirs. Worse, the bank didn't seem interested in hearing that they were victims of fraud.

That changed after I contacted Wells Fargo on the couple's behalf. "We apologized to them," said Jennifer Langan, a bank spokeswoman. "It took us more time than it should have to correct this error."

The Consumer Federation of America launched a new website the other day with plenty of tips to help you avoid the hassles of ID theft. It's called IDTheftInfo.org.

Another tip: AAA members in Southern California can sign up for free monitoring of their Experian credit file. This won't provide comprehensive protection -- you'll need to monitor all three of your credit files for that -- but it's better than nothing.

Protecting privacy

Along these same lines, here's a cautionary tale about keeping your personal information under wraps.

Ernie Tamminga, 67, of Goleta, Calif., got a new Chase credit card a few months ago. He immediately went online and "opted out" from allowing the bank to share his information with marketers.

The next month, Tamminga received a letter from Chase instructing him to opt out again if he still wanted to keep his data to himself. Then he received the same instruction a month later. What was the deal? Would he have to opt out on a monthly basis?

The bank assured Tamminga that he had nothing to worry about -- his privacy preferences were on file. "But I'm not so sure," he told me. "At the very least it's confusing as to whether I'm still opted out."

Under federal law, once you opt out from having a financial institution share your personal info, you should never have to do so again -- it's set in stone until you tell the institution otherwise.

Some businesses make it easier than others to opt out. Generally speaking, all you should have to do is click on the privacy page of the company's website, where you should find a link enabling you to opt out online.

Another resource to keep in mind is a program run by the Direct Marketing Assn. called DMAchoice. It allows you to put a halt to credit card solicitations, catalogs and other forms of direct-mail marketing. The service used to cost $1. Now it's free.

As for Chase, a company spokesman had no explanation for why Tamminga received repeated opt-out letters. He said the company was looking into the matter and would reassure Tamminga that his preferences were indeed recorded.

One less opt-out to worry about.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes .com.

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