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The Insecurity of Your Social Security Number – How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
When Cmdr. Gloria Christensen retired from the Navy at full disability due to a service-related head injury ten years ago, she thought the worst was over as she began to return to some normalcy of life. Without family members nearby, she asked for – and was granted – a custodian certified by the VA, to 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 know: Someone can do tremendous – sometimes irreparable – damage to you, just by having access to 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 only $7000 poorer, sadder and wiser.
A UNIVERSAL NUMBER?
“Your Social Security number was never meant to be a universal number for all 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” — will make it illegal in her state for a business to require a customer to give his or her Social Security number as a condition of lease, purchase or provision of service.
“There’s a provision in this law that if an existing state or federal law requires that a number be provided, then the person can ask for it and have it,” says Picraux, “but in the future, when you go to your doctor’s office, and they ask for your Social Security number, you don’t have to give it and they still have to serve you.”
A second provision in Picraux’s proposal would forbid the printing of more than the last five numbers of your credit card number on any receipt. “And no expiration dates on the receipts,” says Picraux. “Your credit card information is supposed 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 list 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 an average loss of $18,000 each.
And cleanup – if it can be achieved – is expensive and time consuming. According to Frank Abagnale – the clever crook-turned-crime-consultant whose life was recently chronicled in the movie, Catch Me If 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 can be months or even years to regain financial health,” during which time getting a job, obtaining loans and housing, even writing checks for utility bills and groceries, can literally become a federal case.
If you suspect or know you’ve been a victim of identity fraud, there are steps to take and no time to waste. But prevention is cheaper, easier, and more satisfying than cleanup.
Don’t minimize your personal risk. People you don’t know and will probably never meet are actively looking for credit card receipts in public trash cans; and “dumpster divers” specialize in going through household and business trash. They can fill out a change of address form with the post office to divert your mail to another location while they spend on your credit cards. They look for your business or personnel records at work. They can rob your home or use special software on your 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 a lawyer, and create a new identity with your name. They can buy personal information from dishonest employees of companies that have a right to your information; or buy your personal information from any number of online sites that sell detailed facts about you. They can counterfeit your checks or debit cards and drain your bank accounts. They can set up new bank accounts and cell phones in your name.
And then they can even file for bankruptcy under your name to avoid the debts they’ve racked up using your name!
Abagnale, Picraux, and government agencies have some suggestions in order to help you keep your good name good and your private information private. One thing they all emphasize: Be proactive, and assume that somebody wants your private information. The best, cheapest way to protect yourself is to use a shredder (Abagnale advises a crosscut shredder) on every single piece of mail you don’t intend 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 and do not apply for; and when you cut up expired credit cards, do not throw all the pieces away at the same time or in the same place.
An easy way to remember the basics of protecting yourself is with the acronym, SCARS: Sharing, Credit, Access, Recognition and SS#.
S is for Sharing: which is what happens when you’re on any kind of mailing list. The fewer you’re on, the more secure your personal information is. How to stay off them:
Contact every financial institution where you do business and tell them that you do not want them to share any information about you without your written permission.
Check the boxes on any application 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; expect to see results in about 3 months.
Get your phone number off call lists by writing the Telephone Preference Service, PO Box 1559, Carmel NY 10512.
Be aware that grocery store and other “frequent buyer” cards reveal your buying habits and other information you may not want disseminated. Count the cost: is that discount worth it?
Think twice before entering any contests. The information -your name, address, phone number – is almost certain to be sold to marketers. Don’t believe it? Enter a contest with a misspelling of your first name or add a non-existent apartment number, and wait and see just how much junk mail you get addressed that way.
C is for Credit. Here are some tips for protecting your credit rating:
Check your credit report at least once a year. Here are the names and phone numbers of the three major credit bureaus: 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 credit card bill you’re expecting doesn’t arrive on time, call the company to find out why – and 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. Choose a combination of letters and numbers that can’t be guessed, and store any records of the passwords securely.
Subscribe to a service, such as Privacy Guard, that provides you with the contact information of each company that accesses your credit report. Abagnale uses such a service, saying, “I consider their annual fee money well spent.”
Cancel all unsolicited “pre-approved” credit cards.
When renewing credit cards, bank cards, and telephone cards, always request the security code immediately.
“Don’t be surprised if you receive an unexpected call from a credit card company asking about an unusual purchase or series of purchases, even if you haven’t lost your card,” advises Picraux. “The company is just doing its job of protecting its customers. But don’t give 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 a loan or credit. The FTC warns, “Remember that legitimate lenders never ‘guarantee’ a loan or credit 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 every other ID card in your wallet and make a photocopy of front and back (spread several out on the machine and do them at once.) Keep in a locked, secure place in your home or safe deposit box. In addition, do not carry any credit cards or ID cards with you that you don’t absolutely need – and never 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 home that blank checks, bank statements, account information and other data are not accessible to guests, domestic help, tradesmen and repair persons, and others. Consider buying 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 can be 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 to you who approaches you to sell (or “give”!) you something, or who wants 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 over the phone that you don’t initiate, and then only to companies you know and trust. Say, “Take me off your call list” to any telemarketer you don’t want to hear from again..
Know who you’re dealing with. “Walk away from any company that doesn’t clearly state its name, physical address, and telephone number,” advises the FTC. “A Web site alone or a mail drop box should raise suspicions.”
If you buy online, be sure the site is secure by reading its privacy statements before purchasing or giving personal information. Use firewall software, especially if you use 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 the wrong hands:
When asked for your Social Security number, ask questions. Say, “Why do you need that number? What happens if I don’t give it to you? Can you accept any substitute?” And if it’s mandatory that you supply your number, Abagnale advises you to request that 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 to you once a decision has been made.” Abagnale says that a lender or retail manager needs to retain only your name and credit score to justify a decision to grant or deny your credit request.
Never put your Social Security number on checks, and only put your first initial on them. “Thieves will not know how to sign your checks and may not know if you are male or female,” advises Picraux.
Order your Social Security Earnings and Benefits Statement once a year to check for fraud. The Social Security fraud hotline is (800) 269-0271.
And finally, the X-Files warning is appropriate: trust no one. Although most identity theft occurs when a stranger steals your personal information, you can lose as much or more just from friends or family who have 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 personal information, bank statements and bills.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” says Abagnale, “and it’s never the person who’s worked for you for six months that rips you off for $25,000. It’s always the long-trusted employee.”
IF SOMEONE STEALS YOUR NAME, DOCUMENTS, OR INFORMATION
Immediately do the following:
Report the crime to your local police. Get a police report number.
Keep a written record of all calls – time, date, who you spoke to – and details of your conversations with authorities, financial institutions, anyone you talk to about the crime.
Call your credit card issuers at once. Then follow up with a letter repeating what you said on the phone and including the police report number.
Call your bank immediately and follow up with a written letter.
File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Hotline (1-877-438-4338).
Call the fraud units of credit reporting companies (TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax – see article above) to place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number.
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