Don is a friend of mine from Oregon. We talked over the weekend and he shared with me one of the most frightening dilemmas he has experienced in his lifetime.
He was shopping at a large department store getting groceries and supplies for the winter early last week. Apparently without realizing he left his wallet sitting on the counter while he was helping box his purchases. In thinking back he must have left his wallet out because the clerk had his membership card. A few hours later he went to pay for gas and discovered his wallet was missing. He retraced his steps and knew that the last time he had his wallet out was at the store.
He rushed back to the store and the checkout counter where he had been helped. Unfortunately there was a different clerk working and no wallet had been turned in. He wasn't worried about the cash but he was concerned about his credit cards, driver's license and his bank account number. Unfortunately, if you know Steve like I know Steve, he really wasn't sure what documents were in his wallet. He knew he had a couple credit cards but didn't know which ones. He wasn't even sure if his social security card was there.
Since it was a weekday he called his bank immediately and put a stop on any debit or charges from his regular checking or savings accounts. His banker assured him that he wouldn't be liable for any credit card charges as long as he canceled the cards immediately. It didn't take him long to figure out which two cards were in his wallet and he stopped payment on both of these. It was now several hours after the incident and one card had already been used so he knew at that point that the wallet was in the hands of a total stranger and a thief.
His concern raced ahead to the potential hazards that identity theft poses. Steve called his banker back and told him what he had learned. Fortunately for Steve his banker invited him into the bank and provided a step by step list of action steps that would protect him.
What Steve didn't know was that even if he wasn't sure which credit cards had been stolen he could contact the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on his credit file. These include TransUnion at 800-680-7289, Equifax at 800-525-6285 and Experian at 888-397-3742. This alert prompts creditors to contact the reporting individual before opening any new accounts or making any charges to existing accounts.
He faxed me the list of steps that his banker provided and I was intrigued with how close to home this problem could be. And it doesn't just happen to those people who misplace their wallets or purses. It could happen to any of us at any time through a variety of circumstances.
Steve learned that the next step is to close all credit, debit, checking and other accounts that identity thieves may target.
It is suggested that indiduals file a report with their local police department as soon as possible and get a copy of the report. The last thing to do is to call 1-877-438-4338 or visit www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America. The thieves are creative and have developed any number of techniques. The report warns people to watch out for friends or relatives who have access to your records. Thieves steal from fellow employees, hack into companies' computers and bribe people with access to company records. People even target mail boxes and are so clever that they take your credit card number, call in a change of address, then apply for another card at the new address and begin charging in your name with the new card. You have no way of knowing that the new card, in your name, is being used because the bills are going to a box number in a neighboring town. It is only when your credit is cut off that you realize there is a problem.
When I inquired the FTC provided me with a list of ways to help prevent identity theft. First of all don't give out financial information over the phone unless you initiate the call or know the person or organization you are calling. Never give your social security number to anyone. Store all your canceled or new checks in a safe place in your home. Remember that sometimes the thief is someone you might know. Report lost or stolen checks immediately and if you have new checks mailed to you review the box to make sure it hasn't been opened. If you get suspicious inquiries from companies wanting to verify statements or award you a prize, but you must verify with a checking account number or credit card number, report this immediately. Guard your personal ATM identification number and be extra careful with ATM receipts, financial documents and even financial solicitations that arrive in your mailbox. I worry sometimes when I get those four blank checks from credit card companies because my credit card number and my address are printed clearly on the checks. I used to just toss them in the garbage, but now I shred them so the numbers are not available to a thief.
If you live in the country don't put outgoing mail in your mailboxes and if a regular bill does not reach you call the company and check on it.
The best advice is to contact the major credit reporting companies that I referred to earlier, to review your file and make certain the information is correct.
Just as more and more identity theft is taking place, more and more people are beginning to wake up and protect themselves from being victimized. A good place to start is to contact your local bank and take the above steps to heart.
After all, its your credit so keep it in your own hands.