Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Identity Theft: What it is & how to avoid it

After posting a few weeks ago about email scams, I have been reminded by others what one of the primary objectives of the email scams is: identity theft.

Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft Information

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) claims on its website that an estimated 9 million Americans have their identity stolen each year. Identity theft can take many forms. Some of the primary uses of stolen identities by the thieves are to obtain credit card numbers (which are then used for any number of illicit purchases or charges), set up telephone, utility, or other accounts, or rent property.

An indispensable amount of information about identity theft can be found on the FTC's Identity Theft site at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/index.html.
Most of the information relevant for individuals can be found by clicking on the Consumers tab. The sections are segmented into Deter: Minimize Your Risk, Detect Identity Theft, Defend: Recover from Identity Theft, & so on.

The Deter section offers many warnings & cautionary advice about protecting your identity. The FTC advises a few tips about your Social Security Number, such as not carrying your SSN card in your wallet or purse. Also, it is recommended that you use discretion in discarding your mail, using the Internet (i.e. email scams & so on), sharing files on the Internet (such as music files in P2P i.e. peer-to-peer situations), selecting passwords for Internet accounts, and much more.

The FTC recommends protective tips for identity theft & more for your personal computer at a site called OnGuard OnLine. The link for this site is http://onguardonline.gov/index.html. This highly regarded site is endorsed by the FTC, the Department of Commerce, Homeland Security, the United States Postal Inspection Service, the Securities and Exchange Commission, & the Office of Justice Programs.

Of particular relevance this time of year are OnGuard Online's 10 Tips for Smart Holiday Shopping Online. These tips can be viewed at http://onguardonline.gov/holidayshopping.html.

While it is recommended that you visit the FTC site for more on identity theft, here are a few highlights of the site I would be remiss if not sharing them here. These are word-for-word from the FTC site:

What are the signs of identity theft?

Stay alert for the signs of identity theft, like:

accounts you didn't open and debts on your accounts that you can't explain.

fraudulent or inaccurate information on your credit reports, including accounts and personal information, like your Social Security number, address(es), name or initials, and employers.

failing to receive bills or other mail. Follow up with creditors if your bills don't arrive on time. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.

receiving credit cards that you didn't apply for.

being denied credit, or being offered less favorable credit terms, like a high interest rate, for no apparent reason.

getting calls or letters from debt collectors or businesses about merchandise or services you didn't buy.

How do thieves steal an identity?

Identity theft starts with the misuse of your personally identifying information such as your name and Social Security number, credit card numbers, or other financial account information. For identity thieves, this information is as good as gold. Skilled identity thieves may use a variety of methods to get hold of your information, including:

Dumpster Diving. They rummage through trash looking for bills or other paper with your personal information on it.

Skimming. They steal credit/debit card numbers by using a special storage device when processing your card.

Phishing. They pretend to be financial institutions or companies and send spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal your personal information.

Changing Your Address. They divert your billing statements to another location by completing a change of address form.

Old-Fashioned Stealing. They steal wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; and new checks or tax information. They steal personnel records, or bribe employees who have access.

Pretexting. They use false pretenses to obtain your personal information from financial institutions, telephone companies, and other sources. For more information about pretexting, click here.

Maine Secretary of State Identity Protection Web Site

State of Maine guidelines & tips for identity protection can be found at http://www.maine.gov/sos/IDFraud.htm. The information here is not as exhaustive as the FTC's site, but this does provide state numbers to call for protection issues & to file reports about identity theft.

The above site also offers contact information for a few free credit report services. These services are Equifax (http://www.equifax.com/home/), Experian (http://www.experian.com/), & TransUnion (http://www.transunion.com/).

Identity Theft Books

If you are interested in reading more about identity theft, Bangor Public Library has a few books on the subject. Click on a title to check availability or to reserve.

1) People get screwed all the time : protecting yourself from scams, fraud, identity theft, fine print, and more by Robert Massi

2) The Wall Street Journal complete identity theft guidebook : how to protect yourself from the most pervasive crime in America by Terri Cullen

3) Stealing your life [text (large print)] : the ultimate identity theft prevention plan by Frank W. Abagnale (written by someone who should know; this is the man the movie Catch Me If You Can is based on)

4) 50 ways to protect your identity and your credit : everything you need to know about identity theft, credit cards, credit repair, and credit reports by Steve Weisman


The discomforting reality is that identity theft is a constant threat in our Internet & credit card age. We need to be more protective of our computers & of our virtual & physical property in order to protect ourselves from potential financial & security disasters.

The best you can do is follow the suggestions offered by the FTC on its site. I would recommend occasionally revisiting this site to learn of any potential new or developing threats to identities & to learn of the newer scams cooked up by the thieves.

If you have comments or questions, you may respond to this post or email me directly at playne@bpl.lib.me.us.

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