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2008-05-28 / Seniors

Seniors learn to protect against identity theft

By Susan Nienow
CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Page Dowdy/Chesterfield Observer Identity thieves can access your personal information just by stealing your mail.
The first time Joe* learned his identity had been stolen was when the Commonwealth's Attorney's office called and told him someone had been charged with the crime and was going to trial. There hadn't been any warning signs. Now, he's much more aware, staying proactive by regularly checking his credit reports.

Joe was lucky. The theft was discovered before any damage had been done to his credit rating. But the damage can be severe when thieves apply for credit cards and even mortgages using their victim's identity and good credit.

At a recent "Get in the Know" program for seniors at LaPrade Library, Crime Prevention Specialist Mike Catron of the Chesterfield Police Department gave important information on protecting ones identity and spotting the warning signs. He told the group that if someone is at least 55 years old and has exemplary credit, they are worth $500,000 or more to an identity thief.

Identity theft may occur when someone steals your wallet or your purse, steals your mail or rummages through trash and finds enough of your personal information to use it. A thief can obtain your credit report by posing as a creditor, get your business or personal records at work, or acquire the information from an inside source.

Even the discount cards on your keychain can provide a thief with your personal information once he has your customer number, Catron pointed out. Know what is in your purse or wallet, and make copies of your credit cards, insurance cards and other items you carry with you. That way you can easily report lost or stolen information if needed.

You could give the information to the thief yourself. Catron stressed that banks and other legitimate companies will never contact you by phone or e-mail to confirm your information. However, if you make the call your information should be secure.

If someone steals your identity, he can change addresses on accounts, obtain new credit cards, establish phone or wireless service, open a bank account and write bad checks and then use your information when he is arrested.

Warning signs that an identity theft has occurred include being denied credit for no obvious reason, failing to receive your monthly credit card and bank statements, getting bills from companies you do not recognize, and credit collection agencies trying to collect on debts you did not incur.

Minimize your risk

"Minimize your risk by limiting the number of cards you carry, give your social security number only when you have to, do not give out any information unless you initiate the contact, and treat items with personal information on them as classified," said Catron.

In addition, you should remove your social security number from everything you can. Mail your bills at the post office, instead of leaving them for the postman. Your mailbox is not secure, and everything from your address and phone number to your credit card number and customer number are on bills.

He recommended that people find out how the information you give out will be used. Is the company you are giving that information going to sell it to others? Whether your information is on paper or kept electronically, ask if your information is secure. Use passwords. Shred all advertisements for credit cards and any material containing your personal information.

Keep receipts and account for every charge on your credit card bills. Look for unusual charges. Check your credit report once a year with each of the three credit reporting agencies - this is a free service, thanks to federal legislation. See the box on page 17 for phone numbers and Web sites. There are also services available to monitor your credit.

What to do if you are a victim

First, call the county police non-emergency phone number, 748-1251, and file an identity theft report. Second, call the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Hotline (877) IDTheft. The police can investigate the crime, but the Federal Trade Commission can give you step-by-step instructions on resolving your problems. Finally, contact the attorney general's office.

If you become a victim of identity theft :

• Keep records of all correspondence with creditors and government agencies.

• File a police report and get a copy of that report. Credit card companies, banks and credit reporting agencies may need to see it.

• Notify all creditors and financial institutions, in writing and by phone, that your name and accounts have been used without your permission. Get new cards, account numbers and checks if necessary.

• Report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission.

• Contact the fraud unit at one of the three national credit reporting agencies. Have a fraud alert placed on your credit report. The agency will notify the others. Keep track of the expiration date of the alert, so you can ask for an extension if necessary.

• As an identity fraud victim, you are entitled to free copies of your credit report.

• Ask the utility companies to watch out for anyone ordering services in your name.

• If the fraud involves your social security number, report it to the Social Security Administration.

• Call a check approval company, so any future checks written on a violated account will be denied.

Important numbers

Chesterfield Police Department Non-Emergency 748-1251 Federal Trade Commission (877) IDTHEFT http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/ Equifax (800) 525-6285 www.equifax.com Experian (888) 397-3742 www.experian.com TransUnion (800) 680-7289 www.transunion.com

Check approval companies:

National Check Fraud Service (843) 571-2143 S.C.A.N. (800) 710-7771 Telecheck (800) 710-9998 Equifax Check Services (800) 437-5120 International Check Services (800) 526-5380

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