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Take steps to prevent being an ID theft victim
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- A dangerous kind of criminal is taking advantage of people's money and good names without those people even knowing they are victims.
The Federal Trade Commission online says identity theft occurs “when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.”
The FTC estimates that 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. In Mississippi, 1,494 people were victims of identity theft in 2006. Mississippi is toward the good end of this list, ranking No. 36 in the nation with 51.3 victims per 100,000 people.
Bobbie Shaffett, family resource management specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said identity theft has been a growing problem during the last 20 years.
“Because of the way we manage data now with computers, more people have access to our information,” Shaffett said. “The problem has become so prevalent that credit card and bank statements don't give the whole account number on documents mailed to us.”
A thief needs only a person's Social Security number and address to steal an identity.
“If a person has access to your personal information, they can apply for credit in your name or use your credit,” Shaffett said. “They can do a change of address to divert statements to their location, so the victim does not even know that their information is being used.”
Shaffett said some people sell stolen identities to others who have bad credit and are desperate to buy a house, car or other items.
In recent years, insurance companies have begun offering identity theft and fraud insurance, but Shaffett said the law already provides consumers with a lot of protection.
“This tends to be very expensive, specialized insurance. Big insurance companies are seeing the profit and getting into it,” Shaffett said. “You can get for free what most of these companies offer, but if you're afraid of hassles, it might be worth it to buy this insurance.”
By law, a consumer can order one free credit report per year from each of the three credit reporting bureaus. Additionally, those who have been turned down for credit and those who are victims of fraud can request a free credit report. Shaffett said all consumers should check their credit report at least once a year to see that no one else is using their name.
Rick Eades, a home inspector in Ridgeland, spent about four months clearing up the problems caused when someone stole his daughter's identity. One of her former coworkers stole her Social Security number a few years ago, then last summer opened five lines of credit in her name.
“Melissa started getting bills and phone calls about a $5,000 bill she owed to some clothing companies,” Eades said. “We told them we had not made any of those purchases and had not even shopped at those stores.”
Eades, who serves with Shaffett on the Mississippi Consumer Education Partnership -- a group of experts concerned with informing and protecting consumers -- knew to contact the state attorney general's office immediately to report the fraud.
“We followed what the attorney general's Web site says to the letter,” Eades said. “We filed a police report in the town where the crime happened and in my daughter's town. We went in person to the attorney general's office and made a formal report.”
Eades gathered all the required records, and a detective with the attorney general's office conducted the investigation that ultimately led to the arrest of the thief.
“The attorney general sent all the information back to the three credit boards, and they took it off and didn't charge us anything because it was fraud,” Eades said. “By following the steps from the attorney general's Web site, it worked.”