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Identity Theft: Stealing Your Name and
In what many are calling America's fastest growing type
of robbery, crooks are working without the usual tools of the trade. Forget sawed-offs and
ski masks: your social security number will do the trick. Or that blank, preapproved
credit application you tossed out with the coffee grounds. Even talking on your phone
could allow someone you may never meet to rob you of the one thing you may have thought
safe from attack: your identity.
Identity fraud is digging deep into consumer's pockets -
millions of dollars were lost in the past year by financial institutions across the
country. The perpetrator may use a variety of tactics to drain your finances: posing as a
loan officer and ordering your credit report (which lists account numbers); "shoulder
surfing" at the ATM or phone booth to get your PIN code; "dumpster diving"
in trash bins for unshredded credit applications, canceled checks or other bank records;
or, until recently, notifying the Postal Service to redirect your mail to the address of
choice, such as a mail drop, which allows anonymity.
It may be months before you're aware you're a victim. But
when you get turned down for a mortgage on your dream house because you've got a bad
credit rating and you know you've paid the bills, beware: the ID thief may have struck
Do you carry your social security number in your wallet?
Consider this: that nine-digit code gives crooks access to your medical, financial, credit
and educational records. There are no legal restrictions on private company use of social
security numbers (SSNs); in fact, a data base of names with associated SSNs recently was
found published on the Internet. What's worse, most states still use your SSN for your
driver's license number - a policy that is, fortunately, changing.
If you think you're safe after your wallet was stolen
because you canceled your credit card and put a "stop" on your checking account,
think again. Once identity thieves have the information, they may open new accounts or
lines of credit - under your name, for their use.
I didn't have to go far to find a victim of identity
fraud: a co-worker had learned about it the hard way. His bank called him in April this
year and asked, "Did you authorize a $4,500 cash advance on your credit card in
Miami, FL today?"
He was stunned. The bank had called only hours after the
withdrawal was made, following an alert initiated because certain account parameters
indicated something might be wrong. Luckily for him, the bank simply asked that he sign an
affidavit that he had not been in Miami and hadn't made the withdrawal. He wasn't held
liable for the money. And he never found out what ID the crook had used to get access to
Unfortunately, my coworker's ordeal wasn't over. He
received a call in June from a cellular phone company, asking if he'd opened an account
with them in Miami. Someone had racked up $1,800 in calling charges under his name and
"What really disturbed me was that they asked if I
lived at an address in Hallendale, FL. This guy was using my name and social security
number - he was pretending to be me! He could kill someone or rob a bank with my ID in his
Once again, he signed an affidavit disclaiming knowledge
of the charges, and the account was cleared. This time, he called the three main credit
bureaus and reported the fraud. He's thinking about buying a new house this year, and he's
worried these incidents could mar his otherwise clean credit history.
My co-worker is just one of thousands of individuals who
are victimized each year. The July 1995 edition of Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine
reported that TRW, one of the three largest credit bureaus was getting 600 to 700 new
fraud cases every day, and more recent tallies show those figures are still on the rise.
The culprits may be found among employees (or patrons) of mailrooms, airlines, hotels or
personnel offices--anyone who has access to a person's financial information. They can use
your credit card or instead use encoding equipment, sold by business supply companies, and
blank cards with magnetic strips on the back, to encode your account number onto a
counterfeit card with a different name. Crooks sometimes seek jobs specifically to get
access to financial information; alternately, they may bribe employees in such positions
to supply them with the data they want.
Need a phony ID to "prove" you're the person
whose name is on the credit card? Try surfing the Web. There are scores of sites with
complete instructions on creating a "new you." And if you've got your own
computer, "scanner" and color printer (or copier), you can create your own false
In a typical case in the first half of this year, Postal
Inspectors arrested eight West African nationals who were allegedly operating a
multimillion dollar counterfeit and stolen credit card enterprise nationwide. And Postal
Inspectors in New York arrested 16 members of a gang that allegedly ran a passport photo
business, supplying false identifications for cashing checks stolen from the mail.
In response to recommendations by the Chief Postal
Inspector and Inspector General of the Postal Service, a recent prevention measure that
addresses some of consumers' concerns was adopted by the U.S. Postal Service. Aware that a
crook could submit an address change to divert customers' mail without their knowledge,
post offices now send a "Move Validation Letter" to both the old and new address
when a change is filed. The letter requests you call an "800" number if you did
not file the change.
Postal Inspectors have jurisdiction to investigate and
enforce over 200 federal statutes involving the U.S. Mail. Under Title 18, U.S. Code,
Section 1708, they may arrest individuals suspected of stealing mail or filing a fake
change of address; the penalty is a $2,000 fine or up to five years' imprisonment, or
both. If someone applies for a credit card in your name, they may be prosecuted under
Title 18, USC 1341; the penalty is a $1,000 fine or up to five years' imprisonment, or
both--unless a financial institution is affected, in which case the fine may be raised to
$1 million and imprisonment for up to 30 years.
Other preventive steps are being taken to combat ID
theft: the card activation system (an idea proposed by a Postal Inspector) which requires
that credit card owners call the issuer upon receipt to ensure the cards are in the right
hands; credit checks, in which creditors check card applications against various fraud
data bases before issuing a new card: and new methods of encoding the magnetic strip on
credit cards to increase their security.
But don't depend on these measures for your peace of
mind. Read the information in the boxes to protect yourself from those that prey on your
money. And your name.
This article was written by Debbi Baer, Congressional
& Public Affairs, National Headquarters, with special thanks to Postal Inspector Henry
Herrera, Philadelphia Division, and Postal Inspector John Scott, Program Manager, Criminal
Investigations, National Headquarters.
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