- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2003

The nation’s three major credit bureaus are trying to make it easier for consumers to sort out problems stemming from identity theft.
   
   Starting this month, consumers can notify any one of the agencies Equifax, Experian or TransUnion that they have been victimized by an identity thief, and that agency will relay the information to the other two bureaus.
   
   All three then will put a “security alert” on the consumer’s credit file, remove the person’s name from mailing lists for preapproved offers of credit cards and insurance, and mail the consumer a copy of his or her credit report. They also promise to speed up the removal of fraudulent items from credit reports after the victim files a police report.
   
   “It’s an effort to relieve the consumer of some of the hassle,” said Norm Magnuson, spokesman for the Consumer Data Industry Association, the trade group for credit-reporting agencies, based in Washington, D.C. “And it should help reduce the chance they’ll be further victimized.”
   
   Identity theft is a growing problem in the United States. More than 161,000 consumers filed complaints with the government about identity theft last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which maintains a database of cases. That was nearly double the number in 2001.
   
   Thieves generally try to get hold of basic financial information about their victims, from Social Security numbers to credit card and bank account numbers. They either empty the checking and savings accounts, run up massive bills on the victim’s cards or open new credit in the victim’s name. Some go so far as to purchase new cars and houses under their assumed identities, or establish long-distance cell-phone service.
   
   Losses can run into thousands of dollars, and it can take years for consumers to clean up the mess.
   
   Linda Foley, executive director of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, said the new system for contacting the credit bureaus was “a good first step because it means two fewer phone calls a person has to make to get the process started.”
   
   But, she said, victims will have to go back to each bureau separately to clean up their files, “because each generally has different information, and new information may keep popping up.” Miss Foley noted there was a need, too, for Spanish-language hot lines for the nation’s growing Hispanic population, which also is being victimized.
   
   Miss Foley, who was a victim herself, believes identity theft is a growing problem because “it’s a very high-profit, low-risk crime.” Police forces, she said, are so overwhelmed with homicides and homeland security issues they don’t have time to focus on what is essentially white-collar crime.
   
   Thieves also are getting more sophisticated, she added.
   
   “I was dealing with a woman this morning. Someone has bought a house using her name,” Miss Foley said. “They’ve even got a home equity line of credit on the new house.”
   
   The Identity Theft Resource Center, which operates the Web site www.idtheftcenter.org, has volunteers nationwide to help victims clear up their financial problems. The center previously was part of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which has extensive “how-to” information on its site at www.privacyrights.org.
   
   A new program to help identity theft victims has been set up by Call For Action Inc., a nonprofit group that partners with radio and television stations to sponsor consumer hot lines. Call for Action has set up a toll-free number at 866-ID-Hotline (866/434-6854) to provide phone counseling for identity theft victims. Prevention tips can be found on its Web site at www.callforaction.org.
   
   Shirley Rooker, president of Call for Action, which is based in Bethesda, said the group’s volunteers are trained to help consumers, who are often very upset.
   
   “It can be a very paralyzing thing, because people know they may face maybe years of having to deal with this,” Miss Rooker said. “We’ll give detailed help to get them started.”
   
   
   
   ASSOCIATED PRESS

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