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New law fights identity theft
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A new law set to go into effect Jan. 1 should make it easier for consumers to protect themselves from identity theft, a crime that claimed 814 Mississippi victims in 2002.
On Dec. 4, President Bush signed into law the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003. According to the White House information on the legislation, it provides tools "that expand access to credit and other financial services for all Americans, enhance(s) the accuracy of consumers' financial information and help(s) fight identity theft."
Susan Cosgrove, family resource management agent in Newton County with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said identify theft has become a huge problem in Mississippi and nationwide.
"The No. 1 type of identify theft is credit card fraud, followed by phone or utilities fraud, bank fraud, government documents or benefits fraud, loan fraud and employment-related fraud," Cosgrove said.
Identity theft is taking an individual's personal information and using it for financial fraud. It can involve stealing a person's credit card or bank account numbers or applying for loans and credit using another person's name and social security number.
Since 1999 when the Federal Trade Commission began collecting data on identity theft, the number of complaints has doubled each year. In 2002, there were 161,819 reported cases of identity theft nationwide.
In Mississippi, 46 percent of identify theft victims experience credit card fraud. Mississippi's averages in each of these categories track national trends. Cosgrove said the state ranks 39th nationally in the number of cases of identity theft reported.
With 75 victims, Jackson had the greatest number of reported cases of identify theft in 2002, followed by Brandon with 34, Gulfport with 31, Meridian with 27 and Biloxi with 23.
Since identity theft is an often hidden crime, Cosgrove said one of the best ways for consumers to fight it is by regularly checking their credit reports. The new law allows for one free credit report each year from each of the three credit reporting agencies.
"Check for accuracy as well as fraud," Cosgrove said. "Make sure there are no unauthorized charges that appear on your report. If you find mistakes, follow procedures to dispute it."
If accurate but negative information is on a credit report, time is the only way to make it better. Most items stay on a credit report for seven years and bankruptcy lasts for 10 years.
In addition to the annual free credit report, among the other provisions of the new law are:
- Requiring merchants to only show the last five digits of credit card numbers on store receipts;
- Creating a national system of fraud detection to make identity thieves more likely to be caught;
- Establishing a nationwide system of fraud alerts for consumers to place on their credit files;
- Requiring regulator to devise a list of red flag indicators of identity theft; and
- Requiring lenders and credit agencies to take action before a victim even knows a crime has occurred.
"Good credit is one of the most valuable tools a consumer has. It is essential to financial well-being," Cosgrove said "Everyone should build a good credit and work to protect the one they have."