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Consumers at risk for identity theft around the holidays

POSTED: December 7, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Most people think that identity theft is just something that happens to other people, in other places, but sadly that is not the case.

One Jefferson family knows just how close to home it can happen.

"We received a phone call from a credit card company that someone was using my husband’s information to apply for a credit card," said Kay, who has asked that her husband’s name and their last name be withheld so as to not impede the investigation, which still is open.

"The company was calling because the application was denied because the address on the credit card application didn’t match the one that was on his credit report. If they hadn’t called, we never would have known that someone had stolen his identity."

That phone call was just the tip of the iceberg in the case involving her husband’s stolen identity.

After obtaining her husband’s credit report, the Jefferson couple realized that more than 10 credit accounts had been opened by the person who stole Kay’s husband’s identity.

"We don’t know where this person got my husband’s information from. The police are still investigating the case," Kay said. "And they applied for more than a dozen credit cards, all online."

Anne Wallace, president of the Washington, D.C., Identity Theft Assistance Center, said the holidays "can be a risky time for consumers."

"The basic problem is people are distracted, they’re in a hurry, they have too many things in their hands," said Wallace, whose nonprofit coalition has helped more than 45,000 consumers recover from
identity theft. "They go to a mall with a wallet containing too much information, and if it’s stolen, you’re handing that criminal too much information."

Wallace said solicitations, either by phone, e-mail, or in person, can lead unwitting victims down the road of identity theft. Sometimes people who claim they are seeking donations to charitable causes can in fact be fishing for personal information.

"Our human nature is to be trusting, and especially during the holidays we want to be trusting, and crooks take advantage of that trust," she said.

In some cases, retailers haven’t set up the necessary safeguards to prevent the theft of credit card information by computer hackers.

"The retail industry is trying very hard to get merchants to comply with better security standards, but there are still some smaller companies that may not have that level of security," Wallace said.

Wallace said it’s difficult to name the most prevalent method of identity theft.

"Identity theft takes many forms," she said. "It can be on the other side of the world and it can be in the same room with you. If you talk to law enforcement officials, they are concerned about organized crime and gangs dealing in (stolen) information. But on the other hand, based on the stories we hear, friends and family members can be a major risk as well."

In August, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation set up the state’s first Identity Theft Unit, a seven-agent squad based in Conyers that focuses on large-scale, organized cases involving multiple victims. Gov. Sonny Perdue formed the unit in response to statewide statistics that show Georgians lost $25 million to identity theft in 2006. Georgia ranks seventh per capita in identity theft in the nation, with 34,000 reported cases since 2002, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC estimates that 65 percent of identity theft victims never report the crimes to law enforcement.

"Once someone’s got your information, there’s a lot of potential there," said GBI Special Agent Terry Sosebee, who heads up the unit. "Imagination is the only limit."

Bill Cloud, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs, said the proliferation of identity theft cases in recent years is "kind of like a bottomless pit; the numbers, the sophistication."

Although no real damage has been done yet to her husband’s credit, Kay says that they still have a long road ahead of them to fix the problems that were created by the identity thief.

"This can’t be fixed overnight. We have to write letters to the three credit reporting agencies and to all of the credit card companies where accounts were opened fraudulently," Kay said.

"We’ve had to close out all of my husband’s actual credit accounts, put a fraud alert on his credit report and apply for a new debit card with our bank."

Authorities warn that individuals can do a lot more to protect their identity and credit, like checking individual credit reports regularly to ensure that no new fraudulent accounts are being opened.

"We really didn’t check our credit reports regularly before this. We just bought a house in March, so that was the last time that we checked them, but everything was fine then," she said.

"But after all of this has happened, we will be checking our credit reports more regularly. We just want to take all precautions to keep this from happening again if we can."



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