Protect Your Name

The ID Snatchers

November 1, 2003

Darlene Little, a broker with Rubloff in Chicago, was preparing to leave for a vacation to Canada when an intruder pushed his way into her home and stole her purse. The thief got away with her credit cards, checkbook, driver’s license, passport, and Social Security card. Little immediately cancelled her credit card and alerted her bank. But within a few months, an unknown woman had used her name and identification to obtain a driver’s license and to purchase everything from baby diapers to a new car. Frustrated and angry, Little was left with thousands of dollars in bills and a serious blow to her previously impeccable credit. She had become a victim of identity theft—a growing problem, affecting 700,000 Americans, according to some industry experts.

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your name or your personal or credit information to conduct fraudulent transactions. Victims may be denied credit or medical benefits, have their wages garnished, find liens placed on their property, or even be arrested for someone else’s crime. The Federal Trade Commission estimates that victims of identity theft spend an average of 175 hours trying to clear their names.

Having your purse or wallet stolen is the most obvious way that a thief can usurp your identity. But about one in five victims knows the identity thief as a relative, roommate, neighbor, or coworker, according to the FTC ID Theft Data Clearinghouse report. These “friends” walk off with personal information you innocently leave in your desk, file cabinet, or briefcase. Store clerks, mortgage and credit application processors, and medical records workers can copy address and financial information from credit card receipts, checks you wrote for purchases, loan applications, and health records. “Dumpster divers” rifle through your discarded credit card receipts. E-commerce sites and computerized information services sometimes fail to provide adequate protection for the personal data you’ve supplied to them in good faith.

Play it safe

Clearly identity theft can come from anywhere, but there are actions you can take that will make it harder for thieves to “clone” your identity.

  • Contact creditors if you haven’t received your bills. Identity thieves may file a change of address notice to reroute your mail to them.
  • Scrutinize your credit card and other financial statements to ensure all transactions are your own. Immediately report anything unusual.
  • Shred or tear up credit card receipts, unused “convenience checks,” and ATM receipts.
  • Don’t give out your credit card number, Social Security number, or bank account information over the phone or on the Internet unless you initiate the contact or have a business relationship with the company.
  • Put a lock on your mailbox, and deposit your mail in a postal mailbox rather than leaving it in your own box for the carrier to pick up.
  • Order copies of your credit report at least once a year, and search for unauthorized activity. The three major credit reporting companies are Experian (, Equifax (, and TransUnion (
  • Carry only credit cards and identification you actually need. “Audit” your purse or wallet and remove unnecessary items such as multiple credit cards.
  • Shop and conduct financial transactions online only if you’re sure the site or your browser encrypts, or scrambles, data. Newer versions of Explorer and Netscape come equipped with 128-bit encryption, which is considered stringent. On Web sites, look for a security statement or a lock symbol (often in the lower right corner of the browser window) to indicate that the site encrypts data.
  • Create unique passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs) that don’t use publicly available data, such as your mother’s birth name. And never keep these passwords in your wallet.

Take action

If you do think you may be a victim of identity theft, act quickly. The thieves will.

  • Contact your local police department. Creditors may require a police report as proof of a crime before absolving you of wrongful debts. The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (H. 2622), which has passed the House, provides for more effective ways to put fraud alerts on your credit reports and makes it easier for banks to distinguish and block fraudulent changes to your credit. In late September a similar bill was being marked up and was expected to pass the Senate.
  • Cancel your credit and debit cards and get cards with different account numbers and passwords.
  • Close your checking account and open a new one. Report stolen checks to check verification companies such as Chexsystems ( or TeleCheck (
  • Contact the fraud units of each of the major credit reporting agencies, banks, credit card companies, and utilities about the possibility of identity theft. Ask credit reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on your account and send you a copy of your credit report.
  • Make a written request that credit reporting agencies correct any errors you find in your report.
  • Document your actions, including the names and phone numbers of people with whom you speak.

Be prepared for creditors to ask you to fill out fraud affidavits. One example is the “ID Theft Affidavit” form (available through the FTC Web site), which is endorsed by a growing list of companies. This site is also full of other useful ideas for reducing your exposure to identity theft and, if the worst happens, to clearing your good name.

Jones is a former staff attorney for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

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