- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

You may recall that I was the victim of identity theft by a hoodlum in Miami who continues to try to use my Social Security number to open credit accounts and — for some reason I cannot fathom — to continue to open new wireless phone accounts, as well.

Well, it has been months and the inquiries on my credit through this person continue. So far, this thief has tried to buy a Gateway computer, open another phone account, open a couple of credit cards and run up more than $4,000 on a Sprint wireless account — with five phones, no less. That particular account was handed over to collections officials who called me to ask when I would send payment.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned in the past few months. I hope you’ll begin to implement them in your own credit habits to protect your credit from fraudulent practices.

• Make sure when you close an account that it’s actually closed. The above-mentioned Sprint account was supposed to have been closed right after all this began. I carried out the instructions given me by the fraud department — visited a Sprint wireless retail outlet with my valid identification, including my Social Security card, and authorized the closing of the account.

Once collections called me this last time, I found out the clerk had only turned off the phones — but left the account active. The thief came back in, apparently, and had the phones reactivated.

If you’re closing an account, have the company verify it in writing so you have evidence to make your case.

• Cross out personal information on receipts. I now have a heightened sense of potential ID theft since all this began. Therefore, I check out every receipt I receive from vendors and retail outlets to make sure all but the last four digits of any given credit card number have been crossed out.

For instance, your favorite restaurant will print out a form for you to sign, as well as a receipt for the transaction. The portion you sign may have your credit card number on it. Cross it out. I now do this at restaurants, retail outlets, department stores, everywhere.

• Watch out for your Social Security number being used as your ID number for your accounts. This is prevalent in the insurance industry. My health insurance card uses my Social Security number as my account number. My driver’s license used it too, until I renewed my license and requested a non-Social Security number ID number on the card. Wherever possible, request a company-issued ID number for the account.

• Don’t give your Social Security number to anyone on the phone. When the collection agency officials called me about the Sprint wireless account, they wanted to verify who I was by asking for my Social Security number.

Wait a minute. They called me. They may sound official, but, frankly, I didn’t know if they were really who they said they were. So I told them to give me what they had on their computer screen and I would verify if what they had was correct with a simple yes or no.

I am astounded by the stupid — yes, stupid — credit policies in place at credit card companies and other retail outlets that set up accounts with personal information.

If they know there’s a fraud problem, why would they use the Social Security number as part of the identification verification process? They ask for it in person, through the automated touch-tone service and on written forms.

Social Security numbers are floating around so much, it’s a wonder the problem isn’t bigger than it is now.

Another pet peeve I have with my credit card companies are the “checks” they send me in the mail. The liability there is astonishing. Here I am trying to protect my personal financial information, but they drop these blank checks in the mail to me just about every month.

“Just sign the bottom line and you’ve got cash,” goes the promotion. Have the credit card companies thought that maybe a two-bit crook intercepting these blank checks could do the same thing? Sheesh.

• Buy a document shredder. These are relatively inexpensive when you consider what they protect. Shred any type of credit, check or financial file you no longer need and want to discard. The shredder destroys all sorts of items: checks, bank statements, individual retirement account statements, old credit cards — even commercial offers for more credit.

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. The best protection is prevention.

M. Anthony Carr has written about the real estate industry for more than 14 years. Contact him by e-mail ([email protected]erols.com).

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