Don't let thieves steal your identity

PERSONAL FINANCE

June 25, 2000|By Eileen Ambrose

Vanda White had followed the experts' advice to safeguard her financial identity, including tearing up credit offers before dumping them and protecting her Social Security number.

But four years ago, instead of getting the expected thumbs up on a loan, the Gaithersburg woman was confronted with an unpaid court judgment and car debt belonging to someone else. A Baltimore County woman working at a financial services firm with access to credit reports had lifted White's data and had been using her identity for two years, White said.

"In my case, there's nothing I could have controlled or done, and that's the scary part," she said.

Unfortunately, stories such as White's aren't rare. Firm figures are hard to come by, but law enforcement authorities agree that identity theft is on the rise. The Federal Trade Commission, which launched the Identity Theft Hotline in November, gets 800 to 900 callers a week reporting a theft or asking for more information on the topic. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy group in San Diego, estimates that 500,000 to 700,000 Americans will be victims of identity theft this year. ID theft can be as simple as someone using your information to get a credit card, or as elaborate as an international crime ring creating an out-of-state mail drop and composite identity based on data pertaining to you and others.

A thief can make $300,000 to $400,000 a year through credit-card fraud, said Thomas Sloan, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Baltimore field office. "Why bother with bank robbery?" said Sloan, whose agency investigates financial fraud.

While victims aren't liable for more than token debt incurred in the theft, they can be stuck with clearing up a ruined credit history, or worse, inheriting the thief's criminal record.

Not long ago, the law considered the companies bilked out of money as the only victims. Many times, "they would write it off as the cost of doing business and not press charges," said Carolyn Henneman, the criminal investigations division chief for the Maryland attorney general's office. "The person whose identity was ruined didn't have a forum."

But two years ago, identity theft was made a felony under federal law, punishable with a fine and up to 15 years in prison. As of last October, it is a misdemeanor in Maryland to cop someone's ID, and victims can recoup from the offender the cost it takes to clear their names and financial records.

Still, resources are limited to fight identity theft, authorities say, and the burden of repairing a ruined credit history rests with you. That's not often easy or quick. On average, it takes victims 14 months to discover the ID theft, plenty of time for damage to be done, and 23 months for a credit record to be made right, according to a Privacy Rights survey.

"You have to convince the credit bureau you are not involved. You have to convince the credit-card companies that you're not involved," Sloan said.

White said clearing her record was a nightmare. She had to hire a detective to make sure that the woman using her identity didn't have a criminal record. And a major credit bureau wouldn't repair her record despite documentation.

"Even a letter from a District Court judge in Baltimore County was not enough," said White, adding that it took the attorney general's office to persuade the credit bureau to fix her report.

Even after White thought problems had been corrected, the false information resurfaced when she tried to refinance a mortgage more than a year later. "It's like lice or something; it keeps coming back," she said.

So what do you do if your identity is stolen? Call the credit bureaus immediately and ask them to place a "fraud alert" in your file plus a victim's statement that requests creditors call you before opening new accounts in your name or changing old ones.

"It's not foolproof. You have to continue monitoring your credit after the fraud alerts," said Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights.

Go to your local police and file a report. Get a copy of this because it may be needed later to convince card issuers and others that your identity has been pilfered.

Phone the utilities, banks, credit-card companies and other companies you do business with about the fraud and follow up with a letter, which is necessary to resolve errors, the FTC recommends. Tampered accounts should be closed immediately and new ones opened with different passwords.

Call the FTC hot line at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338). The agency has counselors on staff to advise what steps you should take depending on the fraud committed. It also is compiling a database of ID theft for law enforcement agencies to share.

"Keep meticulous records. The burden is on you to prove your innocence," Givens said.

And keep watch, even if you think your record is cleared. Get a copy of your credit report twice a year, Givens said. "The earlier you catch ID theft, the easier it will be to clean up the mess and the quicker you will recover."

The reports are free if they're inaccurate because of ID fraud. Marylanders can get a free report each year from the three major credit bureaus. Contact Trans Union, 800-916-8800; Experian, 888-397-3742; or Equifax, 800-685-1111.

Of course, the best advice is to avoid having your information stolen in the first place. Jealously guard your Social Security number and other personal data as much as you would, say, the secret ingredient to prize-winning chili.

And visit the Web sites of Privacy Rights (www.privacyrights.org), the FTC, (www.ftc.gov) and the Maryland Consumer Protection Division (www.oag.state.md. us/consumer) for more tips on safekeeping your information and dealing with ID theft.

You can contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com.

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