- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

As longtime readers may remember, an identity thief hit me about three years ago and

opened several cell phone accounts in my name. He has struck again.

Like many consumers who have been victimized by this ever-growing crime, I didn’t know anything about it until I was denied credit with a cell phone company that asked why I needed another cell phone when I already had five open with them. And, oh, by the way, you owe us $1,200.

It took a few days to clear up that episode. About a year later, the thief struck again. I was ready that time with alerts set up on my credit reports, requiring any issuer of credit to call my home phone first before approving. That’s what happened, and we thwarted the attack.

That brings us to last week.

Let me reiterate the importance of protecting your credit, first of all, from your own misuse — too much debt or missing payments — but also from those who would lift your identity and mangle your credit as easily as picking up a piece of candy at the corner drug store.

For a detailed step-by-step approach to understanding how identity theft happens and what you can do to protect yourself, consult the Federal Trade Commission’s Web page on this crime (www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/idtheft.htm).

Here, you’ll find a complete guide on how identity theft happens, and also what to do if you find yourself the victim of identity theft — worksheets, phone numbers of the credit bureaus, and tips.

Without good credit, most of us can’t buy a parking spot, much less a dream house. Don’t wait until your mortgage application to see if you are who you think you are. The home purchase process is fast-paced. Don’t wait until you make application to ensure you have clean credit and nothing’s been attached to your account that shouldn’t be there.

Is it a large problem? The National Criminal Justice Reference Service (www.ncjrs.gov) reported that in 2004, 3.6 million households, representing 3 percent of the households in the United States, discovered that at least one member of the household had been the victim of identity theft during the previous six months. Two-thirds of those households lost money due to the theft at an average loss of $1,290.

This problem is not going away. As I found, it will probably follow me the rest of my life.

A fraud representative from one of my credit card companies told me: “Once you take care of it, they’ll stop for a while. Then just wait. About a year later, you’ll start seeing credit issues again.”

That’s about how long it took.

What I have found is frightening. Our Social Security numbers are handed around between corporations like a paper plates at a picnic. My particular bandit now has my number. Where he got it, I have no idea.

He had one of my credit cards in his hands that my credit card company had provided him when he convinced them that he was me. Fortunately, the company now has a system set up to notify me by e-mail whenever a change is requested by me. I am supposed to call if I did not make the request. I did, and they cancelled the card.

Here are some items continuing to happen across the credit arena that should change, if not by corporate self-policing, then by legal edict. Until they do, we consumers are pretty much on our own to protect ourselves.

• Medical insurance providers continue to use our Social Security numbers on their members’ identification cards.

• Twice this week, when the credit departments of both Sprint/Nextel and Cingular called me to check if I were requesting more phones, they asked me to “verify” my Social Security number with them to make sure I was who I said I was.

Never, never give your Social Security number to anyone who has called you. I reprimanded the callers and talked with their managers.

Will this change? Who knows?

• Payroll departments continue printing your Social Security number on your pay stub.

• Many merchants still have not converted to the receipt system that blanks out your credit card number on the stub except for the last four digits.

• Companies/agencies/organizations continue to use the Social Security number as an identifier. I gave blood recently and they wanted my Social Security number. Why? They didn’t know, it was just on the form.

As you invest in real estate, your credit becomes a pivotal part of the plan. Without it protected, you’ll not only have credit headaches, you’ll be limited in how you can grow your personal wealth. Take notice and take action.

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate since 1989. He is the author of “Real Estate Investing Made Simple.” Post questions or comments at his Web log (https://commonsenserealestate.blogspot.com).

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