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June, 2002

Fastest Growing Crime: Identity Theft

According to the F.B.I., identity theft is the fastest-growing white-collar crime in the United States. These days, when your purse or wallet is missing, cash may not be the only valuable thing a thief wants to steal. The most valuable items you carry in your wallet -- social security number, ATM card, credit cards, bank checks, etc. -- may be nothing compared to losing your financial identity.

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your financial information to apply for additional credit, make unauthorized purchases, gain access to your bank accounts or obtain loans under your name. Unfortunately, most people do not know that they have been victims of identity theft until mysterious charges appear on their credit card bills or they are rejected for a mortgage because unpaid bills appear on their credit report.

"Identity theft is a serious and distressing crime, affecting the privacy and financial security of many consumers," said Roger C. Bogsted, Commissioner of our Office of Consumer Affairs in Nassau County. "We must maintain a close watch on our financial transactions to ensure that identity thieves are not plying their trade. Don't consider yourself "lucky" if your credit card or other bills don't arrive in the mail. You are still responsible for the debt, and, "others" may be using your identity to purchase all kinds of goods and services."

Although there are no guaranteed methods to prevent identity theft, you can help minimize your risk:

  1. Carry only the cards you actually need.
  2. Do not carry your Social Security number unless you need it.
  3. Cut up old or expired credit cards and close inactive bank accounts.
  4. For your ATM card, choose a PIN that has no relationship to your address, telephone number, social security number, birth date --- information that could easily be discovered by thieves.
  5. Memorize your PIN; do not write it on your ATM card or on a piece of paper that you keep in your wallet or purse.
  6. Keep personal information in a safe place, whether at home or in the office.
  7. Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary.
  8. Do not give out personal information over the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you have initiated contact or know the business with which you are dealing.
  9. Compare your ATM receipts and cashed checks with your periodic bank statements to check for unauthorized transfers or charges.
  10. Shred credit card statements, bank statements and pre-approved credit offers when you do not need them.
  11. Decrease the number of unsolicited credit card applications you receive. Call (888) 5OPTOUT to have your name removed from marketing lists sold by the major credit card bureaus for two years, or permanently.
  12. Ask your bank about its privacy policies and information practices.
  13. Order a copy of your credit report from the three credit reporting agencies at least once a year. Equifax/800-525-6285; Experian/888-397-3742; or Trans Union/800-680-7289; and report any fraud to these same agencies and to the Social Security Administration (fraud line) 1-800-269-0271. A "fraud alert" will let companies that check your credit know that your information was stolen and that they have to contact you by telephone to authorize new credit.
  14. Keep track of your credit card billing cycles. If a bill doesn’t come one month, find out why. Identity thieves have stolen bills from Nassau County mailboxes in an effort to redirect mail by changing your billing address.
  15. Immediately file a Police Report in the jurisdiction where your credit items were stolen to prove to credit providers that you were diligent.

"The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the federal clearinghouse for identity theft complaints. They may be contacted at 1-877-IDTHEFT, or, victims may call our office at 516-571-2600 for advice and assistance," stated Commissioner Bogsted. "We’re here to help."