Wednesday

National Consumer Protection Week, Day Three

Identity thieves are out to steal from you. And they are very good at it. More about that in a minute.

This is day three of National Consumer Protection Week and we are continuing our week-long series on common consumer frauds and scams, with tips on how to make sure you don't become a victim.

Tuesday we talked about debt collector harassment and how to stop it. Monday we talked about the latest car dealer scam, the Presumptive Close and how to make sure you don't get ripped off.

Today, we'll talk about identity theft and how to stop it from hurting you.

What is identity theft? There are bits of information about you that thieves would love to get hold of. Having the right info enables them to open charge accounts in your name, drain your bank account, file false medical claims, and lots more. To open a charge account in your name, run up the tab by purchasing tons of stuff and then skipping with it, all they commonly need is your name and usually just one key bit of identifying information. It can be your driver license number, date of birth, home address, home phone number or - and this is the "gold standard" of info that opens all the doors to your assets - your social security number.

That's why you have to guard that info as much as your wallet on a crowded big city downtown street at rush hour. If you don't, you can wake up one day to find your bank account balance at zero. Or you can find dunning notices in your mail box for charge accounts you didn't know you even had.

How can you prevent identity theft? First know who you're dealing with. If you know the physical street address of a merchant, you know they actually exist. Otherwise, for all you know they could be sitting in a foreign country where you will never find them. Second, don't send money to anyone in life without being very sure about who you are dealing with and double checking to make sure the whole thing is real. You could be giving your money away.

Never carry your social security card with you (keep it at home in a safe place). Charity phone callers, nephews in jail, and all the rest of the phone scams sound real on the phone and look real on the internet. Be suspicious. Be extra careful. Never mail bill payments from your mail box (thieves can pick up your mail).

Get your free credit report once a year (it's free) and go over it carefully to look for any accounts you don't recognize or addresses that aren't your own (and any internet site that wants your credit card number in order to give you a free credit report? well, that's not free - don't give it out). You have a right to a Fair and Accurate Credit Record.

Never, never, never "wire" money to anyone (you can't get it back) and never send someone you don't know for sure cash money. Anyone who wants you to send them cash, and you have never met them, can be assumed to be a ripoff thief. And never, never, never give your checking account number to anyone - don't ever authorize an "electronic funds transfer" because once they have your bank account number, a thief can drain it at will.

If someone on the phone asks for your credit card number or social security number, you should first assume they are a thief and then check everything out and question everything thoroughly before you give out any personal identifying information at all. Remember, you could be giving a thief access to your savings account, your checking account, your IRA, your investment account - everything.

And on the computer, don't use common passwords and try to use different passwords for different web sites too.

How can you fix it when identity theft happens to you? It is not easy. Speed matters too. Act quickly to minimize the damage that is done. First, know your rights as a victim of Identity Theft - federal law does give you some legal rights.

Then, call the Ohio Attorney General's Identity Theft Unit for help. Put a fraud alert on your credit record with all 3 of the credit reporting agencies - some of them will also let you "lock" your credit record from access and that can help tremendously. And dispute any fraud or false info on your credit report. You can use this letter (click here) to dispute anything on your credit report for free.

Then file a police report and get a copy of the police report too. You will very likely need it later.

If a credit card has been opened in your name and it isn't you, notify the fraud department of the store or bank both on the phone and in writing. If your bank account is tampered with, close the account immediately. Check with your bank or credit card company to see if they have an "Identity Theft Repair Kit" like Wells Fargo has on the internet. The Colorado Attorney General also has a terrific 28 page booklet you can read on the internet called Identity Theft Repair Kit with tons of tips and info you can use. You can even get an ID Theft Fix-it Kit from Nolo, the folks who publish low cost legal guides of all kinds.

Want more info? You can get more info on how to straighten out your financial life after identity theft if you click here.

Burdge Law Office
Helping consumers protect themselves every day