Protect Your Identity and Data

How Real Is Identity Theft?

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Identity theft happens when someone uses personal information, generally a name, Social Security number or credit card number, to commit fraud or other crimes. In most situations people don’t find out about the fraudulent charges until they get calls from debt collectors or are applying for a loan.

Jeff Wilcox, a Certified Identity Theft Specialist, helps identity theft victims clear their names and credit ratings and get their lives back on track. In the last decade and a half, he and his team have cleaned up credit reports, filed police reports and provided documents for tracking and reporting the incident. They also help people who have lost or stolen their credit cards to ensure fraudulent charges are caught and disputed as quickly as possible.

“One of our members found out that a $250,000 loan had been taken in his name,” said Wilcox. “When fraud involves an amount that high, it’s tougher to clear the record.”

“While credit card fraud is the most common, people tend to forget that other types of fraud are part of identity theft,” said Wilcox. Utility fraud – using someone’s identity to set up utility payments – is among the top three ways identity theft is committed, according to the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book. Utility fraud is especially tough for people to deal with since the thief is frequently a family member or someone the victim knows,” said Wilcox.

Wage or tax fraud is also common. Wilcox worked with a member who found out six different people were using his Social Security number to apply for a work permit. “That was a complex case because both the IRS and FTC were involved. Because the person was retiring, he needed to determine his earnings for Social Security. It was difficult to sort through and more difficult to find W2s from all those years.”

The “surprise factor”

For many people the financial toll of identity theft can be easily remedied. Once a fraudulent charge is discovered and disputed, it generally can be cleared from the credit report within 60 to 90 days. An important part of Wilcox’ job is helping people deal with the emotional toll and “surprise factor.” For one member this happened when being pulled over for a minor speeding infraction ended in an arrest and jail time. Someone else had been using his driver’s license and multiple warrants were out for crimes the thief committed under that identity.

What to do

If you’re a victim of identity theft you can place a fraud alert on your credit report for free for seven years. A fraud alert ensures that you’ll be personally notified any time someone tries to open a credit account with your Social Security number. It’s also a good idea to order your credit report every 90 days to check for unauthorized activity. All consumers can order a free credit report every year from AnnualCreditReport.com. (Note: this is the only authorized source for the free annual credit report that’s yours by law).

Lessons learned the hard way

Wilcox warns that once your identity has been stolen, it’s essential to stay vigilant and continue to check your credit report every three months. The fraudulent charges may be removed, but the thief may simply put aside your information temporarily and then reuse it once they see the account is no longer monitored.

 

“It’s not enough to monitor your credit report. We all need to monitor our monthly credit statements as well,” said Wilcox. “Identity thieves can start by making just small purchases on an existing account. If those slip by unnoticed, then they’ll move on to making larger purchases.”

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