When Cmdr. Gloria Christensen retired from the Navy at full disability because of service-related head injury a decade ago, she thought the worst was over as she begun to return to some normalcy of life. Without family members nearby, she asked for – and was granted – a custodian certified by the VA, to greatly help her manage her financial affairs as she recovered.
Now, a decade later, she has learned a bitter lesson that she wants other veterans to learn: Someone can do tremendous – sometimes irreparable – harm to you, just by access your social security number.
You see, while Christensen continued her recuperation, sustained financially by allotments from her tax-free disability payments administered by her custodian, she never dreamed that same custodian was using Christensen’s Social Security number to buy and sell stocks on the Internet — racking up enough profits that the IRS came after Christensen for over $200,000 in back taxes.
Now, after nine months of wrangling with lawyers, federal tax specialists and her custodian who denied everything, Christensen is $7000 poorer, sadder and wiser.
A UNIVERSAL NUMBER?
“Your Social Security number was never meant to be considered a universal number for several purposes,” says New Mexico State Representative Danice Picraux, who has introduced legislation in Christensen’s home state to try to staunch the bleeding-out of her constituents’ resources through identity theft. Her NM House Bill 905 – “Privacy Protection Act” — can make it illegal in her state for a small business to need a customer to give his or her Social Security number as a disorder of lease, purchase or provision of service.
“There is a provision in this law that when a preexisting state or federal law requires a number be provided, then the person can require it and have it,” says Picraux, “but in the future, when you go to your doctor’s office, plus they require your Social Security number, you don’t have to give it and they still have to serve you.”
Another provision in Picraux’s proposal would forbid the printing of more than the last five numbers of your charge card number on any receipt. “And no expiration dates on the receipts,” says Picraux. “Your credit card information is meant to be yours and yours alone.”
Such legislation reflects a concern that borders on urgency. The Federal Trade Commission’s annual report about consumer complaint categories in 2002 says that identity theft topped the set of top ten fraud issues, with 43 percent of the complaints. The Department of Justice says that identity theft affects between 500,000 and 700,000 Americans-up 40 percent from just last year-hundreds of thousands of people with the average lack of $18,000 each.
And cleanup – if it can be achieved – is expensive and frustrating. According to Frank Abagnale – the clever crook-turned-crime-consultant whose life was recently chronicled in the movie, Catch Me WHEN YOU CAN — getting just your credit report scrubbed of identity theft can take an average of $1,173 and 175 man-hours. And since those man-hours probably won’t be consecutive, Abagnale notes that “it might be months and even years to regain financial health,” where time getting a job, obtaining loans and housing, even writing checks for bills and groceries, can literally become a federal case.
If you suspect or know you’ve been a victim of identity fraud, you can find steps to take no time to waste. But prevention is cheaper, easier, and much more satisfying than cleanup.
Don’t minimize your personal risk. People you do not know and will probably never meet are actively searching for credit card receipts in public trash cans; and “dumpster divers” specialize in going through household and business trash. They are able to fill out a big change of address form with the postoffice to divert your mail to another location while they spend on your bank cards. They look for your organization or personnel records at work. They can rob your home or use special software on your own present – and discarded – computers. They can get your credit report by pretending to be a landlord or employer. They can get your birth certificate by posing as an attorney, and develop a new identity together with your name. They are able to buy personal information from dishonest employees of companies that have a right to your information; or buy your personal information from any number of websites on the internet that sell detailed facts about you. They can counterfeit your checks or debit cards and drain your bank accounts. They are able to set up new bank accounts and mobile phones in your name.
And then they are able to even file for bankruptcy under your name in order to avoid the debts they’ve racked up making use of your name!
Abagnale, Picraux, and government agencies have some suggestions so as to help you keep your good name good and your private information private. A very important factor they all emphasize: Be proactive, and assume that somebody wants your private information. The best, cheapest solution to protect yourself is by using a shredder (Abagnale advises a crosscut shredder) on each and every piece of mail you do not plan to keep. Tear covers off catalogs and shred the covers, along with any other piece of mail that contains your name, address, account numbers or any other information. In particular, shred every credit card application you receive , nor apply for; and when you break up expired credit cards, do not throw all the pieces away simultaneously or in exactly the same place.
An easy way to remember the fundamentals of protecting yourself has been the acronym, SCARS: Sharing, Credit, Access, Recognition and SS#.
S is for Sharing: that is what happens when you’re on almost any mailing list. The fewer you’re on, the more secure your personal information is. How exactly to stay off them:
Contact every financial institution where you do business and tell them you don’t want them to talk about any information regarding you without your written permission.
Check the boxes on any form you fill out, specifying that your information isn’t to be disseminated.
Get your name off mailing lists by writing the Mail Preference Service, PO Box 643, Carmel NY, 10512. Cost is $5 for online registration; be prepared to see results in about 3 months.
Get your contact number off call lists by writing calling Preference Service, PO Box 1559, Carmel NY 10512.
Be aware that supermarket along with other “frequent buyer” cards reveal your buying habits along with other information you may not want disseminated. Count the cost: is that discount worth it?
Think before entering any contests. The information -your name, address, contact number – is almost certain to be sold to marketers. Don’t believe it? Enter a contest with a misspelling of one’s first name or add a non-existent apartment number, and wait and see just how much junk mail you obtain addressed that way.
C is for Credit. Here are some tips for protecting your credit rating:
Check your credit file at least once per year. Here are the names and telephone numbers of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax (1-800-685-1111); Experian (1-888-397-3742), and TransUnion (1-800-916-8800.) Expect to pay about $10 for each report – cheap insurance.
If a charge card bill you’re expecting doesn’t arrive promptly, call the company to determine why – and also have them check your mailing address to see if someone has filled out a change of address form without your permission.
Place passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Select a mix of letters and numbers that can not be guessed, and store any records of the passwords securely.
Subscribe to a service, such as for example Privacy Guard, that provides you with the contact information of every company that accesses your credit report. Abagnale uses this type of service, saying, “I consider their annual fee money well spent.”
Cancel all unsolicited “pre-approved” bank cards.
When renewing bank cards, charge cards, and telephone cards, always request the security code immediately.
“Don’t be surprised in the event that you receive an urgent call from a charge card company asking about a unique purchase or group of purchases, in case you haven’t lost your card,” advises Picraux. “The business is just doing its job of protecting its customers. But don’t hand out any information if they don’t already have your account number – a legitimate caller will already have that information.”
Never pay “up-front” for financing or credit. The FTC warns, “Remember that legitimate lenders never ‘guarantee’ a loan or charge card before you apply, especially if you have bad credit, no credit, or a bankruptcy.”
Carefully look over credit card bills before paying them, and personally reconcile your own bank statements promptly upon receiving them.
A is for Access: and anyone-friend, foe, family, or stranger – who has access to any of your personal documents has you at their mercy.
Take every credit card and almost every other ID card in your wallet and create a photocopy of front and back (spread several out on the device and do them at once.) Keep in a locked, secure invest your home or safe deposit box. Furthermore, usually do not carry any bank cards or ID cards with you that you don’t absolutely need – rather than take your Social Security card with you -keep it locked up too.
Report stolen or lost checks, credit cards, medical cards, military ID cards, drivers’ licenses, even library cards immediately.
Make absolutely sure in your house that blank checks, bank statements, account information and other data aren’t accessible to guests, domestic help, tradesmen and repair persons, and others. Consider investing in a lockbox with a tamper-proof lock for such documents.
Scrutinize your personal and business check forms. Abagnale says that annual check fraud losses exceed 20 billion dollars. On his site, www.abagnale.com), there is a list of services and check security features that are “must see.”
Never mail your bill payments or checks from home. “They are often stolen from your mailbox and washed clean in chemicals,” says Abagnale. “Take them to the post office.”
R is for Recognize: Be cautious about anyone unknown for you who approaches you to sell (or “give”!) you something, or who would like your private information.
Don’t give your Social Security number out on the phone, nor any other personal information to retailers or other strangers.
Don’t transact any business on the phone you don’t initiate, and then only to companies you know and trust. Say, “Take me off your call list” to any telemarketer you do not desire to hear from again..
Know who you’re coping with. “Walk away from any company that doesn’t clearly state its name, home address, and telephone number,” advises the FTC. “An internet site alone or a mail drop box should raise suspicions.”
In the event that you buy online, be certain the site is secure by reading its privacy statements before purchasing or giving private information. Use firewall software, particularly if you utilize high-speed Internet services. Update virus protection software religiously.
To complete the word SCARS, here are specific tips to keep your Social Security number (S) out of your wrong hands:
When asked for your Social Security number, ask questions. Say, “Why do you want that number? What goes on easily don’t give it for you? Is it possible to accept any substitute?” And if it’s mandatory that you supply your number, Abagnale advises one to request your number be either truncated or obliterated on loan and credit applications, and that “your original credit report be shredded before your eyes or returned for you once a choice has been made.” Abagnale says that a lender or retail manager needs to retain only your name and credit history to justify a choice to grant or deny your credit request.
Never put your Social Security number on checks, and only put your first initial in it. “Thieves will not understand how to sign your checks and could not know in case you are male or female,” advises Picraux.
Order your Social Security Earnings and Benefits Statement one per year to check on for fraud. The Social Security fraud hotline is (800) 269-0271.
And lastly, the X-Files warning is appropriate: trust no-one. Although most identity theft occurs when a stranger steals your individual information, it is possible to lose as much or more just from friends or family who’ve access to your records and accounts. Even the bookkeeper or other entrusted person you’ve treated like family for decades-as Cmdr. Christensen ruefully discovered — shouldn’t be given carte blanche with your own personal information, bank statements and bills.
“I’ve been achieving this for 25 years,” says Abagnale, “and it’s never the individual who’s worked for you personally for half a year that rips you off for $25,000. brians club ‘s always the long-trusted employee.”