Thursday, April 14, 2005

Identity theft - is there anything you can do?

Identity theft occurs on so many levels now that it is difficult to say whether the average person can do anything to prevent it from happening to them. If you buy on credit, rent or own a home, shop at a retail store, own or lease a car, or basically breathe at all, your personal information is available for thieves to exploit. Why, because data aggregators (such as Lezus Nexus, Choicepoint, or the credit bureaus) are aggressively pursuing your personal data for profit. And, in many respects, their accumulation of your personal information is unregulated. Easy to understand when you consider that the federal government is the aggregator's biggest customer. Moreover, the vast administrative and operational complexity of such companies makes it more lilkely that internal controls designed to protect your data will fail at some point over time. In fact, thieves count on it.

To a large degree the likelihood that your personal data will be snatched from one of these aggregators is a matter of chance. Put another way, that your data won't be compromised is simply pure luck. When theives work their way into the aggregator's system they can net thousands if not hundreds of thousands of records to include social securtity numbers, birth dates, credit card account numbers, purchasing habits and other potentially damaging data. With this data, thieves are able to cherry pick consumers with the very best credit for identity theft and credit fraud. Dumpster or trash diving is no longer the chosen method of the more sophisticated thieves.

What then can you reasonably do to reduce the likelihood that you credit will be destroyed by identity theft? First, carefully review debit card or credit card statements for any questionable activity. On line access programs provided by most major credit card companies and banks enable you to do this more frequently than by if you simply reviewed the statement you receive monthly by mail. Contact the bank or credit card company quickly if you notice anything suspicious. Next, obtain a copy of your credit bureau report at least once a year and review it carefully. Multi-bureau reports are now available. Don't be surprised by a problem that you were not aware of at a time when you need credit the most.

Last, buy a cross-cut shredder for your home. They are cheap enough and will prevent the indigent or any other dumpster diver from obtaining any useable information. Be sure to shred those "pre-approved" credit card applications that come in the mail on an almost daily basis. And, if you have accumulated years of cancelled checks and credit card statements consider calling a mobile document disposal service that allows you to observe the shredding process at you home or place of business. If you live in an apartment, avoid placing credit card payments in common outgoing mail receptacles. Thieves break into these regularly.

Doing these things will not necessarily prevent you from becomming a victim of identity theft or credit card fraud. But, you may be able to lessen the chances of it happening or, minimally, control the damage if it does.


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