by: Michael Kabel
It's the scourge of the Information Age, and a threat to every family's security. Identity theft affects more than nine million Americans each year, and the average victim loses more than $6,000 in costs and expenses, as well as countless hours of emotional strain and labor straightening out their financial records.
Yet contrary to popular belief, consumers are not defenseless against identity theft. Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act in 1998, which gives consumers a broad range of rights and resources to fight identity theft.
The four kinds of identity theft
Identity theft accounted for more than fifty-six billion dollars in damages in 2006 alone. Not just an American issue, the United Kingdom and Australia have also reported huge problems with identity theft and fraud.
The nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center defines four types of identity theft:
- Financial Identity Theft is the illegal use or appropriation of banking information such as bank account numbers, PIN codes, and loan information with the intention of robbing or illegally obtaining loan or credit funds.
- Criminal Identity Theft involves using someone else's identity during the commission of a crime.
- Identity Cloning is the duplicating of personal identification such as driver's licenses and credit cards, then using their forged documents for personal gain.
- Business Identity Theft involves using someone else's business information illegally to obtain loan or credit funds.
How to protect yourself and your family
When shopping online, experts recommend using firewall software as well as anti-virus programming that updates itself at regular intervals, so that its protection is never out of date. In addition, Microsoft urges consumers to shop only on secure servers. These are identified by the padlock symbol on the lower right corner of the browser screen, or by the address prefix "https."
Consumers, especially family heads, should monitor all credit card statements for fraudulent charges. Because identity thieves often obtain their victims' information by going through their mail and garbage, consumers should retrieve their mail as soon as possible and shred all documentation after using.
Families should also annually check their credit reports for irregularities that might suggest theft. Under federal law, the three main credit reporting agencies, EquiFax, TransUnion, and Experian, must provide a free copy of a consumer's credit report upon request each year.
To protect against theft and shoulder surfing, consumers should only carry one credit card on their person at all times, and store any others in a secure location within the home. Social security cards should also not be carried but kept at home instead.
Never give credit card information out over the phone or to surveyors in public places. Identity thieves will often pose as solicitors or survey takers in order to obtain personal information.
Finally, consumers who believe they've become victims of identity theft should contact the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/idtheft or by calling 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338). The FTC will have them fill out an Identity Theft Affidavit, which will help them deal with credit reporting agencies and creditors. The ITRC also offers a range of consumer help and planning resources at http://www.idtheftcenter.org/.