Protecting who you are Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2007

Is identity theft as big of a problem as the media are currently making it seem? The answer is “yes.” Identity theft is the most up-and-coming type of fraud, growing leaps and bounds over the past five years, according to Jennifer Herman, fraud analyst for corporate security with FirstMerit Bank.

For the thief, identity theft is a quick and sometimes even easy way to make a buck. As a thief, if you are a good talker, you can get the smallest piece of personal information from a person. With that piece of personal identification, a thief can manipulate that information to get more personal details and access to accounts and personal assets.

This type of theft is not likely to disappear any time soon. People need to educate themselves on ways to protect personal information and be diligent about personal finances, says Herman. There are many safeguards in place that people need to utilize instead of viewing them as nuisances, and if your identity is stolen, you’ll quickly realize how valuable they are for your assets. Often, it is common sense and diligence that can protect you and minimize your risk of becoming a victim.

Smart Business spoke with Herman about protecting your identity and how to reclaim it if it is stolen.

Are there different types of identity theft?

Personal information can be literally stolen from an individual out of the mail or from personal belongings, such as a wallet. Information can also be stolen by phishing. Phishing occurs when an e-mail is sent from what looks to be your credit card company or your financial company. These e-mails often resemble official e-mails but are actually sent by thieves looking for personal information. These e-mails will ask you to reply immediately with your account number and/or PIN or your account will be frozen. One should be on the lookout for such e-mails and never reply. If you reply with such information, a thief has everything he or she needs to start making debts in your name.

How can we keep tabs on our identities?

People should be aware and diligent when it comes to their personal information and finances. Many times people realize their identity has been stolen when they do not receive a credit statement in the mail. If a person is suspicious that his or her identity has been stolen, he or she should review his or her credit report. Everyone is entitled to one free review of his or her credit report. A review does show up as an inquiry but is not detrimental to one’s credit score. A fraud alert can also be placed on accounts if you are suspicious or have been a victim in the past. These alerts require you to be notified each time credit is requested. While this may seem burdensome, it is designed to protect you as the consumer.

What should someone do when he or she finds his or her identity has been stolen?

There are four steps people should take when they know their identity has been stolen. Diligent documentation can help them through each step.

 

  • Place fraud alerts — Place alerts on all accounts open because a thief may try and rob more than one account. You should also notify the credit bureau at this time. Only one major creditor needs to be notified, as it will notify the others.

     

     

  • File a police report — Identity theft should be reported as soon as possible to the authorities so they can start a formal investigation.

     

     

  • Close out accounts that have been compromised — Call and send written notification to the companies of which you have been a victim and ask for all accounts to be closed immediately to prevent future debts. Include a copy of the police report for the companies.

     

     

  • File a claim with the Federal Trade Commission — It can be reached at (877) ID-THEFT.

     

Are people held responsible for debits accrued when an identity is stolen?

Most debts are forgiven with the proper documentation and persistence on the part of the consumer. It takes time and personal energy to recover such losses. Not all debts are forgiven. Some identify theft victims deal with credit issues throughout their life. Prevention is key so identity theft is never experienced.

How can identity theft be prevented?

Do not place bills or letters with personal and/or account information in your personal mail receptacle outside of your home. As soon as the flag goes up to tell the mail carrier there is mail inside, a thief also knows he or she can obtain information. Do not leave personal mail by the front door or out in plain view. If your home is broken into, a thief may swipe such statements. These often go unnoticed, but if a thief obtains such documents, he or she can have access to your assets even after he or she leaves your home. Do not carry personal identification, such as a Social Security card in your wallet. Do not put your Social Security number on your driver’s license. Password protect all personal and bank accounts. Do not use simple passwords or include personal information in passwords. Finally, utilize safeguards put in place by companies.

JENNIFER HERMAN is a fraud analyst for corporate security for FirstMerit Bank. Reach her at Jennifer.Herman@firstmerit.com or (888) 554-4362.