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Preventing Identity Theft

Edda Mellas, mother of US murder suspect Amanda Knox arrives for a hearing at Perugia's court room, Italy, Friday, June 19, 2009.
AP Photo/Stefano Medici
Identity theft is now the most common type of consumer fraud complaint in the United States. Last year, more than 750,000 Americans had their identities hijacked -- including high-profile victims like Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods. Early Show Financial Adviser Ray Martin tells us how we can protect ourselves from this growing problem.

Hijacking of personal information for fraud or theft made up 42 percent of the 204,000 fraud complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission (or FTC) last year. Identity theft complaints grew from 23 percent of the FTC's Consumer Sentinel database in 2000, when the problem also topped the list of consumer fraud headaches.

According to the director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, the majority of identity theft occurred off-line with criminals intercepting mail or skimming data from carelessly discarded credit card receipts. Some scam artists bluff their way past bank tellers and credit bureaus. Armed with Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and other confidential personal information, crooks can then apply for credit cards or bank loans, set up cell phone service or pass bad checks under someone else's name.

Identity theft is also connected to other crimes, such as bank fraud, credit card fraud or misuse of counterfeit financial instruments.

Results: It costs the average victim more than $1,000 to clean up the mess left by identity thieves, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Since 1998 - Identity Theft Is A Federal Crime

The U.S. Justice Department says it's important to know that identity theft is a federal crime. In one notorious case of identity theft, the criminal, a convicted felon, not only incurred more than $100,000 of credit card debt, obtained a federal home loan and bought homes, motorcycles and handguns in the victim's name. But also called his victim to taunt him - saying that he could continue to pose as the victim for as long as he wanted because identity theft was not a federal crime at that time -- before filing for bankruptcy, also in the victim's name.

While the victim and his wife spent more than four years and more than $15,000 of their own money to restore their credit and reputation, the criminal served a brief sentence for making a false statement to procure a firearm. But made no restitution to his victim for any of the harm he had caused. This case, and others like it, prompted Congress in 1998 to make identity theft a new federal offense.

Here are a few things you can do if you suspect you might be a victim of identity theft:
File a Complaint

www.ftc.gov: The Federal Trade Commission, either online or by telephone toll free at 1-877-ID-THEFT (877-438-4338) or TDD at 202-326-2502 or By mail to:
Consumer Response Center, FTC
600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20580

Contact

www.ssa.gov: The Social Security Administration if you suspect your Social Security number is being fraudulently used. You also may call 800-269-0271 to report the fraud.

www.irs.treas.gov: The Internal Revenue Service: If you suspect the improper use of identification information in connection with tax violations. You also may call 1-800-829-0433 to report the violations.

www.framed.usps.com/postalinspectors: US Postal Inspection Service fraud complaint unit, 800-372-8347 or 612-349-0301 locally.

The fraud units of the three principal credit reporting companies:

1. www.equifax.com: Equifax

  • To report fraud, call (800) 525-6285 or write to P.O. Box 740250, Atlanta, GA 30374-0250.
  • To order a copy of your credit report ($8 in most states), write to P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241, or call (800) 685-1111.
  • To dispute information in your report, call the phone number provided on your credit report.
  • To opt out of pre-approved offers of credit, call (888) 567-8688 or write to Equifax Options, P.O. Box 740123, Atlanta GA 30374-0123.

2. www.experian.com: Experian (Formerly TRW)
  • To report fraud, call (888) EXPERIAN or (888) 397-3742, fax to (800) 301-7196, or write to P.O. Box 1017, Allen, TX 75013.
  • To order a copy of your credit report ($8 in most states): P.O. Box 2104, Allen TX 75013, or call (888) EXPERIAN.
  • To dispute information in your report, call the phone number provided on your credit report.
  • To opt out of pre-approved offers of credit and marketing lists, call (800) 353-0809 or (888) 5OPTOUT or write to P.O. Box 919, Allen, TX 75013.

3. www.tuc.com: Trans Union
  • To report fraud, call (800) 680-7289 or write to P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634.
  • To order a copy of your credit report ($8 in most states), write to P.O. Box 390, Springfield, PA 19064 or call: (800) 888-4213.
  • To dispute information in your report, call the phone number provided on your credit report.
  • To opt out of pre-approved offers of credit and marketing lists, call (800) 680-7293 or (888) 5OPTOUT or write to P.O Box 97328, Jackson, MS 39238.

Other Information Sources:
  • www.fbi.gov/contact/fo/norfolk/1999/ident.htm: Federal Bureau of Investigation Tipsheet
  • www.privacyrights.org: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
  • www.identitytheft.org: IdentityTheft.org
  • www1.ifccfbi.gov/index.asp: Internet Fraud Complaint Center
  • www.scamwatch.com: ScamWatch
  • www.iafci.org/resources/idtheft.htm: International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators
  • The Art of the Steal by Frank Abagnale, a convicted imposter and forger who works as a consultant on the issue.