Stop, thief! Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Identity theft is a huge problem, and it is only going to get bigger. All executives have a wallet full of tempting targets for a thief — targets that will give a crook the information required to live the high life while the victims are faced with months of toil just to recover their good name. Crooks can get information from your computer or coax it out of you in a phone call.

Identity theft is the most up-and-coming type of fraud, growing leaps and bounds over the past five years, according to Sue Zazon, president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank in Columbus.

For the thief, identity theft is a quick and easy way to make a buck. If the thief is a good talker, he or she can get the smallest piece of personal information from a person and use it. The thief manipulates that information to get more personal details and access to both personal and business accounts and assets. This type of theft is not likely to disappear any time soon.

Zazon encourages people to educate themselves on ways to protect personal information and to be diligent about personal finances. 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 you. It is often common sense and diligence that can protect you and minimize your risk of becoming a victim, she says.

Smart Business spoke with Zazon about identity theft and how to prevent it.

How does one fall prey to 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 emails and never reply. If you reply with such information, a thief has everything he or she needs to start charging 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. The big three are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Each site has information on freezing credit, credit scores and credit monitoring.

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. One, place fraud alerts on all accounts open because a thief may try to compromise 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. Two, file a police report. Identity theft should be reported as soon as possible to the authorities so they can start a formal investigation. Three, 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. And, four, file a claim with the Federal Trade Commission.

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

Most debts are forgiven with 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 identity theft victims deal with credit issues throughout their life. Prevention is key so identity theft is never experienced.

So how can one prevent identity theft?

It’s paying attention to little things. Do not place bills or letters with personal or account information in the mailbox outside of your home. When the flag goes up to tell the mail carrier there is mail inside, it is just waving to a thief who 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. Utilize a shredder for all credit card offers, bills and any other potentially informative documentation. Finally, utilize the safeguards put in place by companies.

SUE ZAZON is president and CEO of FirstMerit Bank in Columbus. Reach her at sue.zazon@firstmerit.com or (614) 545-2791.