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Lesley Asks About Identity Theft
I watched a program on TV last week here in Canada, called W5, a documentary series. This program was all about Identity Theft; the buying and selling of our personal info over the net; how pervasive, lucrative it is; how defenseless we are to prevent it; and what little federal authorities are doing about it here in N. America. Despite all the precautions I may take with my own computer, and personal information, these hackers are able to access this information through corporate computers. AND, other than California, there is no legal obligation for these companies to inform me that their security has been beached. My question is this: Is there anything I can do in dealing with companies that have my personal information, to protect myself? Thanks, Lesley.

Ever since cavemen started stockpiling stegosaurus meat, other men (and women) have sought ways to cheat him out of it. Nothing in this world is ever "secure". Everything is evanescent. But, when it comes to greed and the desire to get what someone else has, there is no end to man's (and woman's) ingenuity. Your money in the bank is not entirely safe, your money in your house is not entirely safe, your credit cards are not entirely safe, your car is not entirely safe, nothing is entirely safe. To expect the cyber world to be something the world is not (and probably never will be) is unrealistic. Sensationalistic journalism (see "Bird Flu") is all about creating a state a fear without a resolution.

Certainly "Identity Theft" is rather new. It's made possible by a combination of our reliance on credit cards, the speed of the Internet, and man's (and woman's) insatiable greed. The Internet did not create credit cards, it just made them easier to use. The Internet didn't create crooks, it just makes it faster for crooks to steal your money and now your identity.

And what's really being misreported is that somehow the Internet is reason why Identity theft is becoming such a widespread problem. Actually, it has little to do with the Internet - at least as far as the theft of identities goes. Most identities are stolen by such low-tech means as "dumpster diving" and "looking over the shoulder" or just out-and-out stealing items from your home which have your personal information included. According to the Federal Trade Commission the following are the way most thieves steal identities:

• stealing records or information while they're on the job
• bribing an employee who has access to these records
• hacking these records
• conning information out of employees
• They may steal your mail, including bank and credit card statements, credit card offers, new checks, and tax information.
• They may rummage through your trash, the trash of businesses, or public trash dumps in a practice known as "dumpster diving."
• They may get your credit reports by abusing their employer's authorized access to them, or by posing as a landlord, employer, or someone else who may have a legal right to access your report.
• They may steal your credit or debit card numbers by capturing the information in a data storage device in a practice known as "skimming." They may swipe your card for an actual purchase, or attach the device to an ATM machine where you may enter or swipe your card.
• They may steal your wallet or purse.
• They may complete a "change of address form" to divert your mail to another location.
• They may steal personal information they find in your home.
• They may steal personal information from you through email or phone by posing as legitimate companies and claiming that you have a problem with your account. This practice is known as "phishing" online, or pre-texting by phone.

Did you notice that only one of the above has anything to do with the Internet? That would be, of course, "hacking these records". Most of the ways thieves steal identities is rather low-tech. And did you notice that not a single one of the above says anything about buying online. The general consensus is that identities are stolen from those who buy online, but this is just not true. Buying online is very safe, if one uses good common sense.

One other way people can steal your identity is by Phishing which is when someone sends out millions of emails to random email addresses and pretends to be a bank or financial institution. Normally phishing attempts to fool you into believing that these requests to "update your account" or "change your password" are genuine. Most phishers are very good at making these emails look "official". But, keep this in mind, NO, NOT ONE, financial institution, credit card company, or bank will ever ask you for any personal information by email. The links in phishing emails are disguised to look like the link to your financial institution, credit card company, or bank, and the sites they lead too, will look just like your financial institution, bank, or credit card company. Do not be fooled. NEVER, EVER click a link in an email that asks you for personal information, to update your account details, or "change your password" etc. If you need to visit a site like your financial institution, auction site account, credit card company, or bank, or you question whether the email you received is genuine, visit the site by typing in their Web address directly in your browser's address bar. For example: if you get an email from Bank of America, and you're not sure if it's genuine, just type in your browser's address bar. That way you're sure you're on the legitimate site. But, again, we stress, NO financial institution, bank, online stock brokerage firm, credit card company, auction site, etc. will EVER ask you for any personal information in an email.

You can keep yourself safer by looking at the list of ways thieves steal identities and making sure you do all you can to prevent these things from happening to you. But, you can never be 100% safe. And it's not because of the Internet, or credit card companies, or anything else. It has to do with the nature of man (and woman) and the nature of greed. It's been this way for hundreds of thousands of years. That poor caveman who spent weeks hunting down a wooly mammoth and storing the meat for winter, wasn't safe. Some hungry predator might come in the night and eat up all his mammoth meat. Or his neighbors might find a way to trick him out of it or just plain steal it from it. Alas, the world has always had its thieves, con artists, and predators. Be wary. Be watchful. Use common sense.

What to do if you suspect you're a victim of identity theft (Advice from the FTC):

Contact the fraud departments of any one of the three consumer reporting companies to place a fraud alert on your credit report. The fraud alert tells creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts. You only need to contact one of the three companies to place an alert. The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their versions of your report, too. Once you place the fraud alert in your file, you're entitled to order free copies of your credit reports, and, if you ask, only the last four digits of your Social Security number will appear on your credit reports.

Close the accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Use the ID Theft Affidavit (PDF, 56 KB) when disputing new unauthorized accounts.

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