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Identity Theft

What is identity theft?

Identity theft occurs when an individual’s personal identifying information ¾ for example, name, address, and social security number ¾ is taken and used to steal money or services. Personal information can also be used to create a false identity that will make it harder for law enforcement to find the perpetrator. Stalkers sometimes use victims’ stolen identities to harass their victims¾ by, for example, subscribing to unwanted publications and services, taking out personal ads in their names, or using Internet chat rooms, message boards, and e-mail to impersonate them.

With your name, social security number, and date of birth, someone can:
bulletDrain bank accounts
bulletGet credit cards
bulletBuy a gun
bulletGet a driver’s license
bulletGet loans

How often does it happen?

There are no firm estimates of the prevalence of identity theft, but it has been suggested that 500,000 to 700,000 persons in the United States become victims of these crimes each year. One of the three principal credit-reporting agencies, Trans Union, receives more than 2,000 calls a day from victims. Credit bureaus estimate that two-thirds of all their consumer inquiries relate to identity theft ¾ more than 522,000 in 1997.

More than half of the identity theft complaints received by the Federal Trades Commission (FTC) involve credit card fraud. The balance of complaints relate to:
bulletUnauthorized telephone or utility services (25%),
bulletBank fraud (16%),
bulletFraudulent loans (9%), and
bulletGovernment documents such as driver’s licenses, tax returns, or benefits (8%).
bulletAbout 12% of all complainants to the FTC had a personal relationship with the suspect.

What information can be used by thieves?
bulletname
bulletaddress
bulletphone number
bulletsocial security number
bulletdriver's license number
bulletchecking account number
bulletsavings account number
bulletcredit card number
bulletdebit card number
bullettelephone calling card number
bulletemployee identification number
bulletelectronic identification numbers (passwords, PINs)
bulletdigital signature
bulletmother’s maiden name
bulletany other numbers or information used to access financial resources
bulletpassport and citizenship papers

How is personal information taken?
bulletStealing a wallet, purse, drivers’ license, credit cards
bulletHaving access to social security numbers (which may be on your driver’s license, health insurance card, or school ID)
bulletGoing through trash or robbing mailboxes
bulletTaking personal and credit information from insecure Internet buying sites
bulletMisuse of company property (such as taking someone’s name, address, and credit card information from a mail-order company)
bulletMaking fraudulent offers (including the recent "Slave Reparations Act," scam in which perpetrators told elderly African Americans that $5,000 would be added to their Social Security check if they sent their name, date of birth, and Social Security number to the address listed).

How does identity theft affect victims?

Most victims are unaware that their personal data has been stolen until a credit card or loan application is refused or debt collectors demand payment for purchases the victim never made.

Victims may suddenly discover that they have a criminal record if someone has stolen their identity and committed crimes. They may find out during a routine traffic stop, upon reentering the United States after a trip abroad, after a prospective employer carries out a background check, or when the police arrive with an arrest warrant. Correcting criminal histories takes incredible amounts of time, can require the assistance of an attorney, and is very disruptive.

It can destroy credit status, resulting in loan and credit card refusals. Fraudulent accounts may show up on credit reports for up to seven years. New fraudulent accounts may continue to emerge for even longer. If the perpetrator files for bankruptcy in a victim’s name (to avoid payment of accumulated debts or eviction), that may appear on credit reports for 10 years.

It can take years of hard work and persistence to correct wrong information about financial status. Creditors and the three major credit bureaus must be convinced that the theft occurred, credit histories must be corrected, and protective measures taken.

If the perpetrator has a criminal record in the victim’s name, similar efforts must be made to get this removed from official databases. Even if the perpetrator is apprehended and convicted, there is no guarantee personal information will be safe from future exploitation and it may be necessary to monitor the situation for years, and hire a lawyer to protect future credit history.

Victims can suffer enduring psychological scars. Some victims of identity theft become hyper-vigilant and find it hard to trust anyone. Others feel angry, vulnerable, helpless, or violated. These feelings can be heightened by the struggle to correct records, clear names, and bring perpetrators to justice, as well as by repeated encounters with debt collectors and fears of lawsuits and garnished wages.

 What are the legal remedies for identity theft?

Criminal laws

As of June 1, 2000, 37 states had specific identity-theft laws. States that have no specific identity-theft legislation may have other laws prohibiting the criminal behavior of identity thieves. Under the 1998 Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, identity theft became a federal offense. This Act recognizes the victim (rather than creditors) as the true victim, and provides for payment of restitution.

Identity theft is time-consuming and difficult to investigate. When victims seek to make a report, it may be unclear which jurisdiction is responsible for the investigation. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors may be unfamiliar with relevant laws. Arrests and prosecutions for identity theft are rare. For example, in San Diego, only 50 out of 783 reported cases resulted in an arrest in 1999. In Los Angeles, out of 3,000 reported cases, only 1% of cases were solved through the criminal justice system. Even when prosecutions proceed, victims may have no rights to be notified of court hearings, submit victim impact statements, or apply for compensation.

Violations of the 1998 Identity Theft Act are investigated by various federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Secret Service, the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General, FBI field offices, or the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. To get details of the laws that apply where you live, you should contact your State Attorney General’s office or local consumer protection agency, or visit the federal government website at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

Civil Justice Remedies

Whether or not a criminal prosecution takes place, civil lawsuits against the perpetrator and/or third parties may provide a way for victims to secure a measure of justice. Civil lawsuits seek to assess civil liability for injuries and losses arising from the crime. Defendants found liable are usually required to pay financial compensation (damages) to victims. To explore whether or not civil action is an option in your case, contact the National Crime Victim Bar Association (703-276-0960 or www.victimbar.org) or a qualified attorney for assistance.

ACTION FOR VICTIMS

Contact information for all identified organizations is available at the end of the bulletin.

If you are a victim of identity theft, take the following steps immediately:
bulletContact the fraud units of the three principal credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union—by phone and in writing.
bulletAsk for a "fraud alert" to be placed in your file.
bulletRequest that a victim’s statement be put on file asking creditors to call you before opening new accounts or changing existing accounts.
bulletRequest copies of your credit reports in writing. You are entitled to a free copy if the report is inaccurate as a result of fraud. Monitor activity monthly.
bulletCheck your credit reports carefully. Have companies that opened the fraudulent accounts remove them.
bulletContact the billing departments of your creditors—credit card companies, banks, phone services, and other utilities—about any suspect accounts, by phone and in writing.
bulletConfirm which recent activity on your accounts is your own. Put stop-payment orders on any outstanding checks that haven’t cleared. Immediately dispute any fraudulent accounts and follow up in writing.
bulletChange your account passwords and access codes. Close ATM or credit card accounts that have been used fraudulently, and open new ones. Get new cards issued with new Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) and new passwords.
bulletAvoid using your mother’s maiden name, your telephone number, birth date, or other obvious codes.
bulletFollow the correct procedures for reporting the theft of credit cards, ATM, and debit cards in order to limit your liability. You can find further details with helpful sample letters, in "When Bad Things Happen to your Good Name" published by the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov.
bulletAsk who has jurisdiction over identity theft and fraud investigations and prosecutions in your area. File a report with that organization. Request a copy of all reports made. Creditors may require these copies to make corrections to your credit history. Make a report to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Take the following additional steps, as necessary:
bulletIf the perpetrator used the mail to commit fraud and/or submitted fraudulent change of address requests to redirect your mail, contact the local office of the Postal Inspection Service.
bulletIf someone is using your Social Security Number to work or apply for a job, contact the Social Security Administration’s fraud hotline (800-269-0271). Call 1-800 772-1213 (and follow up in writing) to verify the accuracy of the earnings reported on your Social Security Number and request a copy of your Social Security Statement.
bulletIf your name or Social Security Number is being used to fraudulently obtain a driver’s license, contact your Department of Motor Vehicles.
bulletIf someone has filed for bankruptcy in your name, write to your regional U.S. Trustee (see www.usdoj.gov/ust or Blue Pages under U.S. Government—Bankruptcy Administration)
bulletIf your identification information has been improperly used in connection with tax violations, contact the Internal Revenue Service (1-800-829-0433).
bulletFind out if free legal assistance is available—especially if your credit is severely damaged, legal action is taken against you, or you have been left with a criminal record as a result of the fraudulent use of your identity. Contact your local bar association or legal aid office.
bulletMaintain a file documenting all your efforts in response to the theft. Log every phone call, noting the name of the person to whom you spoke. Follow up every call in writing. Keep a copy of all letters you send in connection with the crime.
bulletKnow your state’s identity-theft laws and your rights as a victim.
bulletSeek support from family or friends, or speak to a counselor or victim advocate. Responding to identity theft is emotionally exhausting as well as time-consuming.

General Safety Precautions against Identity Theft:
bulletGuard your personal information closely. Ask why it is needed, how it will be used, and whether it will be shared or sold. Be wary of any caller who claims it is necessary to verify your personal identifying information. Do not include personal data on contest entry forms.
bulletRemember that thieves may intercept personal information shared over insecure Internet connections.
bulletStore your social security card and passport in a safe place rather than keeping them with you all the time. Only carry essential credit cards, bank cards, and checks.
bulletShare all personal documents, mail, receipts, pay stubs, and credit card offers before disposing of them.
bulletLimit the number of credit cards you use and close unnecessary accounts. Be attuned to the billing cycles of your different accounts and notify the creditor quickly if you fail to receive a bill or replacement card on time. Carefully check credit card and telephone bills as well as bank statements for unauthorized charges or activity.
bulletSecure your mailbox. If you plan to be away, have a trusted friend, relative, or neighbor retrieve your mail, or ask the post office to hold it until your return. Send mail via a secure U.S. Post Office collection box rather than leaving it for pickup in an insecure location.
bulletGuard your personal information at work. Find out how your employer stores and protects your information. Don’t keep personal identifying information, credit information, bills, or receipts in your office. Don’t dispose of these documents in your office trash or send personal mail through the office mail system.
bulletAt least once a year, request a copy of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus and check to see that the personal information reflected in the reports is accurate. Contact creditors about any suspicious entries.
bulletCall toll-free, (888) OPT-OUT, to halt credit card solicitations.
bulletContact the Direct Marketing Association and have your name removed from telemarketing, e-mail, and mailing lists used and sold by companies.
bulletCheck all your financial statements regularly for what should and shouldn’t be there.
bulletAlways keep careful records of banking and other accounts.

RESOURCES:

National Center for Victims of Crime
1-800-FYI-CALL
www.NCVC.org
gethelp@NCVC.org

Credit reporting bureaus:

Equifax
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
1-800-525-6285 (report fraud*)
1-800-685-1111 (order credit report)
www.equifax.com

Experian
P.O. Box 9532
Allen, TX 75013
1-888-397-3742 (report fraud*, order credit report)
www.experian.com

Trans Union
P.O. Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92834
1-800-680-7289 (report fraud*)
1-800-916-8800 (order credit report)
www.tuc.com

*Always follow up telephone reports in writing.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
1717 Kettner Ave., Suite 105
San Diego, CA 92101
1-619-298-3396
www.privacyrights.org

Social Security Administration (for stolen/misused Social Security Numbers)
Fraud Hotline
1-800-269-0271
National Fraud Information Center (for all/general fraud)
1-800-876-7060
www.fraud.gov

Federal Communications Commission (for long distance/cellular phone fraud)
1-888-CALL-FCC
www.fcc.gov
Federal Trade Commission (for all/general fraud)

Identity Theft Clearinghouse
600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20580
1-877-IDTHEFT
www.consumer.gov/idtheft

Securities and Exchange Commission (for investment fraud)
1-800-SEC-0330
www.sec.gov

Telecheck (for stolen/misused checks)
1-800-710-9898

U.S. Postal Inspection Service (for stolen mail)
For a referral to the U.S. Postal Inspector nearest you, please call the National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-800-FYI-CALL.
www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect

U.S. Secret Service Field Offices
For a referral to the U.S. Secret Service Field Office nearest you, please call the National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-800-FYI-CALL.
www.treas.gov/usss/mission.htm

National Crime Victim Bar Association
2111 Wilson Blvd.
Suite 300
Arlington, VA 22301
703-276-0960
www.victimbar.org

 

The National Center’s FYI publications provide basic information on a wide range of crime victim topics to increase awareness of the consequences of victimization and the options and resources available to help victims. This information is designed to complement and enhance the services of victim service professionals. If you need referrals to local victim service providers, call 1-800-FYI-CALL.

FYI: A Program of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2001 by the National Center for Victims of Crime.  This information may be freely distributed, provided that it is distributed free of charge, in its entirety and includes this copyright notice.

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