LIGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. - Shortly after the World Trade Center in New York City was reduced to rubble, relatives and families of the victims began receiving telephone calls seeking information about those who died so that financial records destroyed in the terrorist attack could be reconstructed. The calls, as it...
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LIGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. – Shortly after the World Trade Center in New York City was reduced to rubble, relatives and families of the victims began receiving telephone calls seeking information about those who died so that financial records destroyed in the terrorist attack could be reconstructed. The calls, as it turned out, weren’t placed by financial firms or investment companies that had once occupied the Twin Towers, but scam artists preying on the survivors vulnerability in the wake of the ghastly events of Sept. 11. What they were after was just enough information to steal the identity of the victims, much as the terrorists had stolen the identity of others to create fake passports and other documents. Such cases of identity theft – whether for financial gain, to avoid prosecution or for revenge – are among the fastest growing crimes in the United States, according to Mari Frank, an attorney and leading authority on privacy protection and identity theft. “No one is immune,” Frank said. One in four Americans will be a victim of identity theft, she said. Frank confessed that she was the victim, not once but twice, of identity theft. She described the person who stole her identity in the most serious case as her “evil twin.” Not only did her “twin” run up $11,000 in credit card charges under Frank’s name, she had managed to obtain more than $50,000 in credit. She also left Frank being sued by a rental car company. Despite the growing number of identity theft cases – she estimated that there are more than one million cases reported a year – few, if any, are investigated and even fewer perpetrators are caught. That prompted Frank to author “The Identity Theft Survival Kit,” a $79.95 package that includes a computer diskette with attorney-written form letters, a coaching book entitled From Victim to Victor: A Step-by-Step Guide to Ending the Nightmare of Identity-Theft, and audio-cassette tapes on how to “regain your credit, identity and sanity.” She said the guide was partly an attempt to help victims of identity theft without them having to resort to paying for legal assistance. Although many people believe that the Internet is largely to blame for identity theft, Frank cited statistics from the Federal Trade Commission showing that 24% of such cases were the result of “dumpster diving.” “If you’re not shredding (documents) at your credit union, just imagine what you have on these people,” she said. She noted that the key to identity theft was obtaining a person’s Social Security number. She warned against victims of identity theft changing their Social Security number – which she said some law enforcement agencies advocated – saying it made the victims look suspicious. “It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do,” she said. What victims should do, she advised, is first contact the fraud units at the three credit reporting bureaus (Experian, Equifax and Trans Union). The victims should request a credit report and ask that their file be flagged with a fraud alert. They should also ask to be notified to verify all new credit applications. Following that step, they should file a police report with the fraud or economic crime unit of the department. Also important, she said, was to contact government agencies, such as the FTC and the passport office. For credit unions, Frank offered this advice: * Verify and authenticate a member’s identity and address. * Check fraud alerts and set up fraud detection devices. * Limit instant credit and convenience checks. Also limit or eliminate the use of Social Security numbers on documents. * Screen new and temporary employees. * Shred all documents to be discarded. * Limit access to information and keep an audit trail. * Train all personnel in how to properly handle information. “Credit unions know their members better (than other financial institutions),” Frank said. “But you’re not perfect.” One area where credit unions and banks came in for criticism was their refusal to turn over certain documents, such as credit applications filled out by a scam artist. “I know a lot of credit unions and banks are unwilling to share that information,” she said. “You need to get it to the victims so they can put their lives together.” Frank also urged people to contact elected officials in Washington to support privacy legislation. She admitted that in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there would likely be a backlash to implementing any such legislation. “We are not in fear of all our information being gathered and sold to anybody who wants it,” she said. “That is what’s frightening to me.” (Readers interested in contacting Frank about identity theft can reach her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at (949)364-1511. Her Web site is at www.identitytheft.org.) -
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