NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, September 2004
Identity Theft/Fraud Alert
by Karl R. Goller
From July/August, 2004 Capital PC User Group Monitor

As a recent victim of “Identity Theft,”I would like to share with you what I have learned so you can protect yourself from also becoming a victim and thereby possibly saving yourself a lot of grief and even some money. There is nothing you can do within reason to completely protect yourself from identity theft. However, you can do some rather simple, inexpensive things to reduce the likelihood and the potential consequences.

People who perform identity theft are very resourceful, organized, and ruthless. They do not need much of your information and this information is available to them in more ways than you might realize. One of the more sensitive things they like to get is your Social Security number. There are probably many more places you have provided it than you realize, such as to doctor and other medical offices. Only well into the experience I came to learn that my identity information was obtained from an employee at a medical laboratory where I had blood work done. Don’t forget, your Medicare number, which everyone knows, is also your Social Security number.

Identity thieves do not need to obtain one of your credit cards or even an account number. They can and willopen a new account with your identity information; or, in a store, they may claim to not have the credit card or account number (yours) with them and ask the clerk to look it up, which a careless clerk may do and then let them charge on it.

So, what to do? Before (and after) you are a victim of identity theft, you should take the following precautions. If you wait until after you are a victim, you will lose much of the benefit. First, the obvious and often-given advice, but worth repeating, is to take all reasonable precautions to protect your personal information. This means do not give it out unless absolutely necessary and then only to people and organizations you trust. Always safeguard any papers, documents, and other media that contain such information and very carefully destroy (shred) them whenever you dispose of them.

In addition, close any and all credit cards and accounts that you do not need and actively use. Contact each issuer to do this and ask them for a confirmation letter stating that the account has been closed and save this letter. This should result in your having only a very few vulnerable (perhaps two or so) major credit cards that are accepted by most stores, service stations, etc.

Next, telephone any one of the three credit agencies ( Equifax, 1- 800-525-6285; Experian, 1-888- 397-3742; Trans Union, 1-800- 680-7289 ).You will be talking to a computer and cannot even get a person on the line at this point. Select the option to file a “Fraud Alert”and answer the questions to do this. If asked, say that you have or think that you may have been a victim of identity theft. That credit agency will also notify the other two credit agencies to place Fraud Alerts on their records on you.

There is very little downside to doing this and a lot of potential benefit. Putting a Fraud Alert on your credit records will not affect any of your existing financial situations (credit cards, accounts, loans, etc.) in any way. What it does do is if anyone, including you, attempts to take any kind of significant financial action (open a charge account, take out a large loan, make a large purchase such as a car), the granting organization will almost certainly check with one of the credit agencies to determine your credit worthiness. If you have a Fraud Alert on your record the agency will first contact you by phone or otherwise to determine whether it is actually you or not that is attempting to take the action. They will then inform the inquiring organization whether it is you or not, thereby thwarting an identity thief. The possible inconvenience to you is apparently the only downside to establishing a Fraud Alert.

An additional benefit is that when you establish a Fraud Alert with a credit agency, they will not only notify the other two credit agencies to establish Fraud Alerts in their records on you, but each of the three will then send you a free copy of your current credit report.You should review each of these (they may differ) very carefully to determine any inaccuracies and notify the agency of any. Also, in these reports they will advise you of the option to extend the 90-day duration of the Fraud Alerts your telephone call initiated to one year by writing each one of them a letter requesting them to do so. I recommend that you do this. In these letters you can also point out any inaccuracies in your records.

Establishing a Fraud Alert may also put you in a better legal position in the unlikely event that a creditor does, for whatever reason, allow an identity thief to open an account or otherwise incur a debt with your identity, and then the creditor wants to hold you responsible.

Karl Goller is a long time member of CPCUG. He just wanted to share his experience with identity theft so that other members might be spared some of the trauma.

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