Identity Theft: Online Resources Can Help Protect You - The Naked PC Newsletter (#3.14)

by Lee Hudspeth

A loved one's identity was recently stolen. In the interest of privacy I'm being intentionally vague about the details, but suffice it to say that someone stole the following items from the victim: personal check register and checks; wallet (with Driver's License and some credit cards); cash; grocery scrip; as well as home, office, and car keys. Within minutes of the crime, the victim filed a police report with the local Police Department and contacted various banks and credit card agencies to inform them of the theft, and all their locks were changed within 24 hours.

But what dismayed me was the police department's appalling lack of any organized set of recommendations for victims of this type of crime. When the victim asked the police sergeant if they had a pamphlet or even a simple checklist of what to do, the reply was a dismissive, "No." The banks and credit card vendors weren't quite so terse, but for all practical purposes we were left on our own. Identity theft is a particular problem for Internet purchases because the Internet makes it easy for someone pretending to be you to wreak so much havoc very quickly. Things that will come back not to haunt the thief but to haunt you, the victim of identity theft.

Coincidentally, about six weeks prior a friend of ours had her identity stolen (same scenario as above but no keys were taken), and her husband's identity was compromised as well. On her own she managed to figure out some really essential steps on how to handle the inevitable long-term hassle of bounced (forged) checks, and although for privacy reasons I won't mention these friends by name, I want to thank them very much for their help in dealing with our own experience. The suggestions they made are all incorporated into this article. There are also some excellent online resources about identity theft.

There are a number of different ways that your identity can be stolen. Someone can steal your wallet/purse; rifle through your trash; pilfer your mail; impersonate you to get information about you; and spy on your PIN activities at automated tellers and similar devices. Each experience warrants slightly different tactics; in this case it was a stolen wallet/purse.

Checklist of what to do when your wallet/purse is stolen.

1. Immediately file a police report in the city in which the crime occurred.

2. Immediately call your bank's customer service line to report the theft (they typically have a special number devoted to theft incidents).

3. Call each credit card's customer service line to report the theft (they typically have a special number devoted to theft incidents). If you don't have a precise listing of the credit cards that were stolen, it's best to cancel *all* of them, pronto.

4. If the thief now has your home and/or work address, be vigilant. Don't be lulled into a false sense of complacency by the constable's off-handed comments like, "Oh don't worry, we see this all the time. Wallet/purse thieves only want the cash and never come around to your home." (Yeah, right.)

5. If your home and/or work keys were stolen, replace the locks immediately. Tell your employer what happened; some employers may have a protocol for dealing with stolen office keys.

6. If your car keys were stolen, you may want to buy a LoJack (if you don't already have one) or similar device, since changing all door locks and the ignition lock can be expensive depending on your car's make/model.

7. Consider getting a new Driver's License *number*. Not just a re-issue of your old license, but an entirely new *number*. Your state's department of motor vehicles probably has a procedure for doing this (ours does), but you'll have to ask as they didn't tell us about it, our friend did. If you keep your prior Driver's License, you may continue to get bounced checks for months or years, and it will harm your credit rating. This process may take 6-8 weeks. OTOH, recognize that this isn't a guarantee of no more problems, just one of many possible courses of action that may minimize your woes so use your own judgment.

8. Contact the three major credit reporting agencies' fraud departments to alert them of possible impending fraudulent activities related to your accounts.

Equifax    @ 615-386-2200 or 800-556-4711
Experian   @ 888-397-3742 or 800-353-0809
           or 800-301-7195
TransUnion @ 800-916-8800 or 800-241-2858
           or 800-680-7293 or 800-680-7289

(Pardon the multiple numbers, but we're still working through the agency contacts so these are all the numbers we've gathered to date.) Tell them to "lock you out" for any new lines of credit (also called a "fraud lock"), which will help squelch embezzlement schemes. Once you are confident the storm has passed you can unlock your status with each credit reporting agency.

9. Gather the following documents, get them notarized (where appropriate), then make at least 25 copies of each document. As you receive bounced forged checks from check-clearing/processing companies like SCAN or others, you can quickly assemble a packet for replying to their notices. Also keep a copy of each document with you at all times, should a vendor think you suspicious when you're flagged in their bad check database while you're in their store. File all of these documents with the three credit reporting agencies, too.

* copy of Police Report

* bank affidavit of forgery

* letter from bank verifying that the checking account was closed due to theft

10. Watch your credit reports like a hawk for the next year and aggressively follow up on any activities that tie back to the theft. Get an updated credit report from each of the three agencies at least every two months for the next year.

11. Use your previous months' credit card, utility, and other bills to figure out the typical date on which each one arrives as precisely as possible. If any of them are so much as a day late in arriving, call the vendor immediately to see if the thief has changed your bill's mailing address (a common scam to prevent you from seeing the mounting fraudulent charges).

Here are some of the online sources for help with identity theft:

* Federal Government's "ID Theft: When Bad Things Happen To Your Good Name" booklet (the single best resource of the bunch!)

* FDIC Consumer News "Your Wallet: A Loser's Manual"

* Federal Government's Identity Theft Page

* AARP's Identity Theft FAQ

* CALPIRG's Privacy Rights Program FAQs

If you have any identity theft prevention tips, I'd like to hear from you.