The identity thieves are looking for you. They love small business owners because they make such profitable victims. If they catch up with you, they could destroy your personal financial standing — or even your business.
Like all predators, identity thieves stalk their targets, strike without warning and then disappear into the night with their bounty. Their attacks produce delayed reactions. It may be months, even years, before their victims become aware of their plight. Traveling the painful road to financial recovery can take many more months, sometimes years. The ultimate cost to the victims and their families often proves to be a financial and emotional catastrophe.
These criminals would like to make you their next victim, and national statistics suggest they have a good chance of doing so.
Nearly 60 million Americans have been affected by identity theft, according to a 2018 online survey by The Harris Poll. That same survey indicates nearly 15 million consumers experienced identity theft in 2017.
Identity Thieves Don’t Have to Be Smart
Unfortunately, identity theft is an easy crime to commit. Using personal information about you, the thief assumes your identity, obtains false ID and sets out to purchase huge amounts of merchandise in your name. It wasn’t you who bought all those products and services — tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth — but now it’s up to you to prove that. And that job often turns out to be far more difficult than you could ever imagine.
Jan Jacobs, of Burlington, Vermont, struggled to repair the damage caused when her identity was stolen.
“My first hint of trouble came in the form of a letter from a credit card company saying that they had been trying to reach me by telephone. It turned out that someone was attempting to open a new credit card in my name. Until then, I had no idea that I had been victimized,” she said.
Jacobs took corrective action immediately.
“I called the credit bureaus and asked them to put a fraud alert on my accounts, spent two hours on a consumer hotline trying to find out what to do next and launched myself on what seemed to be an endless route of tedious paperwork and phone calls.”
While she was working to get her name cleared, she ran into trouble trying to get a car loan. Eventually, after many months, she was able to repair the damage.
John Stevens, Jr. provided an even scarier example of the devastation wreaked by identity thieves. Stevens was at his Maryland home on a day he remembers well. The phone rang. When he picked it up, his nightmare began.
The call was from an investigator for NationsBank asking why Stevens was “delinquent” on payments for a Jeep Cherokee, bought in Dallas a year earlier.
“I don’t have a Jeep Cherokee,” Stevens protested. “And I haven’t set foot in Texas in over 30 years.”
True, but his name was on the contract, and so was his Social Security number.
Soon thereafter, Stevens and his wife learned that someone had bought four more cars and other items worth more than $113,000 in their names. Their excellent credit had been destroyed.
“After a lifetime of integrity,” Stevens said, “I was essentially being accused of embezzlement and treated like a deadbeat.”
It took three years of paperwork and $6,000 in legal fees for Stevens to clear up the mess. In the meantime, he was denied a loan to build a vacation home, harassed by debt collectors and forced to pay cash for everything he bought. The crowning blow came when their home was put under surveillance by investigators looking for the missing Jeep.
Other identity theft victims have had their drivers’ licenses suspended, been turned down for jobs or even jailed for offenses committed by total strangers.
You May Already Be a Victim
The FTC reports that many victims don’t discover their plight for more than a year — some for as long as five years.
Jeanine Guilfoyle of Bergen County, New Jersey, became a victim of identity theft some years ago and said she will never forget the experience.
“I received letters from several department stores. When I opened them, I found new credit cards with my name on them that I had not applied for. When I called to cancel the cards, I was told they had already been maxed out. Apparently the thieves applied for ‘instant credit’ at the stores and immediately spent the limit.
“I had to call each of the stores’ credit departments, call the credit bureaus, get a new driver’s license and contact Social Security. It took months of paperwork, phone calls and correspondence. I finally got things straightened out, but not before I was stressed to the point that I broke down.”
How can this happen? How can a criminal you have probably never met assume your identity and cause you so much grief?
The magic key that allows a thief to open the door to your life may be in your purse or wallet right now — your Social Security number. (The Social Security Administration is working to help with this problem by issuing new cards that do not contain Social Security numbers.)
Of all the tools coveted by identity thieves, driver’s licenses, credit cards, etc., your Social Security number is the most sought after prize. It’s astonishingly simple to steal a person’s identity starting with nothing more than those nine digits. With that information, the thief can easily apply for and obtain credit cards and driver’s licenses in the victim’s name.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers these tips:
- Give your Social Security number only when legally necessary. Some experts suggest that you refuse to divulge your Social Security number to anyone other than government agencies and companies such as banks, brokerage firms and employers. (These companies are required to report their dealings with you to the federal government and must have your Social Security number to comply.)
- Before revealing personal identifying information to anyone, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others.
- Pay close attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if bills do not arrive on time.
- Minimize the identification information and the number of credit cards you carry to what you actually need.
- Order a copy of your credit report from the three credit reporting agencies every year. Make sure they are accurate and include only those activities you’ve authorized.
- Keep items with personal information in a safe place. Tear them up or shred them when you don’t need them anymore. Make sure charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards and credit offers you get in the mail are disposed of appropriately.
A Stitch in Time
Here’s a little trick that will make life a bit easier if you ever find that your identity has been stolen: Take everything containing personal information out of your wallet or purse — driver’s license, credit cards, everything.
Then make a photocopy of both sides of each item. Put the copies away in a secure place, and you’ll have phone numbers and addresses of the people and agencies that you need to notify in the event of trouble.
Modern technology, the Internet and our ability to gather and store huge amounts of personal data on individuals have all contributed to the evolution of identity theft.
Don’t Become a Victim of Phishing
In the latest variation of identity theft, a technique known as “phishing” is rapidly becoming a major threat to consumers. To avoid becoming a victim, watch out for emails designed to look like messages from legitimate companies and government agencies. These messages often provide direct links to websites that have been expertly designed to look like legitimate company sites. This is where you must be especially vigilant. These “counterfeit” websites not only look like the real thing, but they often make use of legitimate logos and trademarks.
Using a ploy such as “updating our records,” email predators usually ask for sensitive information such as Social Security number, credit card numbers and mother’s maiden name. No legitimate company or agency will ever ask you to send that kind of personal information to them in an e-mail. If you respond to such a request, you almost surely will be targeted as an identity theft victim.
Experts suggest that you never click on a link to a website that has been sent to you by email. The best solution: hit the delete key, call the company directly or forward the message to the Federal Trade Commission.
Perhaps the same kind of technology that has helped to make identity theft a major national problem will eventually help us to find a solution.
In the meantime, take the most important step needed to keep you out of that kind of trouble. Get in the habit of protecting your Social Security number and other personal information as if your financial life depends on it. In a very real sense, it does.
What To Do If You Become A Victim Of Identity Theft
If you learn that your identity has been stolen, you must act quickly. Start by calling the police and asking for a crime report. You’ll need that to attach to letters you’ll send to banks and credit card issuers.
File a complaint with the FTC by contacting their Identity Theft Hotline, by telephone (877.438.4338), by mail (Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580) or for online help, log on to: www.consumer.gov/idtheft
Contact the fraud departments of one of the three major credit bureaus and report that your identity has been stolen. It’s no longer necessary to call all three: Equifax (report fraud: 800.525.6285), Experian (report fraud: 888.397.3742) or Trans Union (report fraud: 800.680.7289). Ask them to place a “fraud alert” on your file.
Contact the security departments of any creditors or financial institutions where your accounts may have been compromised. Close those accounts, and apply for new ones. Put passwords (not your mother’s maiden name) on any new accounts you open.
You may want to run a background check on yourself, since crimes committed in your name will wreak havoc on your credit standing. You can run a check on yourself at: www.truthfinder.com