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What’s behind identity theft-and how you can prevent it

Denver Business JournalOn the Money
From the March 5, 2004 print edition

Computer technology advances daily, maybe even every hour. Those advances make it possible for financial information to be shared more easily and cheaply than ever.

There are benefits to this increased speed. Law enforcement agencies can apprehend criminals more quickly, banks may prevent fraud, and consumers will make improved purchasing decisions.

On the other hand, as financial data becomes more accessible, precautions to protect against the misuse of information becomes especially essential. One effort to do that was The Financial Modernization Act of 1999.

Also known as the “Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act” or GLB Act, the legislation includes provisions to protect consumers’ personal financial information held by financial institutions. The Act contains these principal parts: privacy requirements, financial privacy rule, and a safeguards rule including “pre-texting” provisions.

The enforcement of the GLB Act is primarily carried out by the Federal Trade Commission, (www.ftc.gov.) For individuals, the most valuable part is the pre-texting provisions, as listed in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act -it’s illegal for anyone to:

  • xUse false, fictitious or fraudulent statements or documents to get customer information from a financial institution or directly from a customer.
  • Use forged, counterfeit, lost, or stolen documents to get customer information from a financial institution or directly from a customer.
  • Ask another person to get someone else’s customer information using false, fictitious or fraudulent statements or using false, fictitious or fraudulent documents or forged, counterfeit, lost, or stolen documents.

Pre-texting repeatedly leads to identity theft. Identity theft is the fastest growing law-breaking activity in America; 9.9 million victims were reported last year, according to a Federal Trade Commission survey.

The most common methods of extracting money through identity theft are:

  • Credit Card Fraud – a credit card account is opened, or an existing credit card account is “taken over”;
  • Services Fraud – the thief opens telephone, cellular, gas and electric, cable TV, or other service in the victim’s name;
  • Bank Fraud – a checking or savings account is opened in the offended name, and/or fraudulent checks are written;
  • Loans – the crook gets a loan

The end result is that a person becomes liable for debts that he or she did not create. Although often publicized, it’s worth repeating the basics of identity theft prevention.

  • Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you initiated the contact and know who you’re dealing with.
  • Install caller ID on your phone. New legislation now requires that telemarketers can no longer hide their identity when making telephone calls.
  • Call your financial institutions if your statements don’t arrive on time. Reconcile them quickly and report any discrepancies right away.
  • Keep items with personal information in a safe place. In other words, rather than let old credit cards, bank statements, and charge card receipts lie around, destroy them.
  • Add nonsensical passwords to your credit card, bank and phone accounts.
  • Be mindful about where you leave personal information in your home, especially if you are having work done in your home by others.
  • Find out who has access to your personal information at work and verify that the records are kept in a secure location.
  • Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year.

A variant of identity theft is “affinity fraud.” Con artists take advantage of being in the same club or ethnic group to prompt trust from their victims. Churches are one place where affinity fraud is increasing.

There are some early warning signs that fraud is about to occur. They include:

  • The approach, whether in writing, by phone or email is unsolicited.
  • There is a very short time in which to respond to claim a prize.
  • An invitation to send a “processing” or “management” fee, make a purchase or sign up to a service to obtain a prize or reward.
  • The need to use premium rate phone lines.
  • The source of the promotion is based overseas.
  • An invitation to send money out of the country, particularly the Netherlands, Canada, and particularly countries that don’t exist.
  • Prizes are expressed in foreign currency.
  • An invitation to provide credit card or bank account details.
  • Rewards are wholly dependant on persuading others to join a scheme.

There’s an old saying that says, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!” When it comes to hide and seek with our money, the preceding should help us all to not be fooled at all.

© C. Stephen Guyer for American City Business Journals Inc. All rights reserved.