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Averting identity theft--safeguarding your good name
By Gene Walden
(From the Minneapolis Star Tribune)

Before he became a financial advisor, Mike Miller was a police officer for 20 years and a graduate of the FBI National Academy. That’s why Miller was a little surprised to find himself the victim of identity theft—not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions.

The first time it was a charge on his wife’s credit card account from a purchase in Singapore. They were able to get the charges removed and then canceled the credit card. The second time, Miller got a letter in the mail from his credit card company saying his request to transfer $9,000 had been denied. “I never made that request,” recalls Miller. He called the credit card company and canceled the card.

The third time, someone from out of state placed charges on his business check card, which he was later able to have removed. If identity theft can happen to Miller—an identity theft expert who leads seminars on the topic—it can happen to anyone. Fortunately Miller knew the right steps to take to minimize the damage and curtail further breeches. Identity theft can happen to anybody anywhere at anytime, so it’s important to know not only how to prevent identity theft but also how to deal with it when it does happen.

Last year, identity theft cost victims about $56.6 billion, according to a research report by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Research. Minnesota ranks 33rd nationally in identity theft cases, with 2,872 cases reported last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Nationwide, there were 246,035 cases reported.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, says Miller, the managing director of Integra Shield Financial Group in Plymouth. “There are millions of cases each year that go unreported. Identity theft has exploded. If you lose your purse or your wallet, within 24 hours someone in Russia—or anywhere in the world—could have your identity.”

Count the ways
Identity theft comes in many forms. Credit cards, bank accounts and brokerage accounts are probably the most common targets, but college students are being preyed upon in increasing numbers by ID thieves who steal their identity to take out student loans. ID thieves have also started tapping into health insurance accounts to pay for medical services. One surprised victim was shocked to see that he had been billed for a hospital surgery that was apparently performed on someone else who used his insurance policy.

Social security numbers are also at risk. Last year, authorities rounded up 1,300 illegal aliens in Minnesota and five other states who were all registered to work with stolen Social Security numbers.

How do thieves get access to your personal information? They use a variety of means, both low tech and high tech. In Georgia, one gang of thieves looked for red flags on residential mailboxes to steal outgoing mail left in the box for the carrier. When the gang was busted, police found 14,000 credit card numbers on their laptop.

Natural disasters are also a favorite ploy of ID thieves. “More than half of the web sites soliciting contributions after Katrina were bogus,” says Miller.

Cyber-thieves have come up with a variety of ways to get your personal information. They often send out emails that appear to be from banks, retailers, government agencies—even the FBI.—informing you that you could face problems if you don’t log into their link and reenter your personal information. “Don’t even click on the links,” says Miller. “That could give them access to your computer.”

Bogus phone calls are another way thieves phish for your personal information. “In one case, thieves were calling people posing as court employees and informing the victims that they were up for jury duty,” says Miller. “They were asking for Social Security numbers and credit card numbers and threatening the victims with fines if they didn’t comply.”

Preventing ID theft
Rule number one in preventing identification theft, says Miller, “don’t give out any personal information unless you initiated the contact.”

Here are some other tips to keep ID thieves at bay:

·        Never throw anything with your personal information in the trash—especially pre-approved credit card offers. “Shred everything,” says Miller. “Crosscutter shredding is the best.”

·        Never put credit card payments and similar mail in the mailbox and raise the red flag.

·        Never respond or click on attachments or links from unsolicited emails—even those that seem to be from legitimate businesses or government agencies.

·        Order your credit report each year from the three national consumer reporting agencies, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, to make sure there are no odd entries on your report. You can order your reports through www.annualcreditreport.com.

·        When you leave town, put a hold on the mail and stop the newspaper.

·        On your computer, keep your firewall and virus blocker up to date.

·        Watch your credit card statements carefully to make sure no bogus charges appear. Miller also suggests that you have your statements delivered electronically to prevent thieves from stealing mail with your personal information.

Once thieves strike
Even with all of those precautions, you still might find yourself to be the victim of identity theft. If you see bogus charges on your credit card or charges to your checking account that you didn’t initiate, you need to take several steps to minimize the damage:

·        Notify the credit card company or bank immediately. Then cancel your credit or debit card.

·        Report the incident to the police.

·        Notify the three national consumer reporting agencies. “They will put a fraud alert on your credit report,” says Miller, “so that if someone tries to open a new account you will be automatically notified.”

·        If you lose your purse or wallet, contact your bank and credit card companies immediately and have them cancel the old cards and reissue new cards to you.

“Identity theft is the crime of the 21st Century,” says Miller. “It can occur anytime and you likely won’t even know about it until after it happens. That’s why you need to safeguard your personal information as though it’s a classified, top-secret document—which is exactly what it is.”

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