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Julie M. Sturgeon: Things you can do to fight identity theft

It’s Your Money

Posted: February 17, 2010 8:57 p.m.
Updated: February 18, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 
The Department of Justice prosecutes cases of identity theft and fraud under a variety of federal statutes. Offenses carry with them maximum terms of up to 15 years imprisonment and fines.

Related crimes involving mail fraud, wire fraud and/or financial institution fraud can impose up to 30 years imprisonment. The definition of identity theft or fraud is when someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves deception for economic gain.

Recently, we have become more aware of how easily criminals can obtain our personal data without having to break into our homes or offices.

This type of crime occurs in obscure places such as trash bins outside our homes or offices, on the Internet or in public places following our most mundane routines.

Trash bins offer any array of personal information — copies of checks, credit card or bank statements, or other records that typically have your name address and even your telephone number. These records make it easier for criminals to get control over accounts in your name.

When you receive applications for “pre-approved” credit cards in the mail, criminals may retrieve them and try to activate the cards.

As we know, the Internet has become a particularly appealing place for criminals to obtain identifying data, such as passwords or banking information. Responding to unsolicited e-mail that promises some benefit in exchange for identifying data has been a method used to obtain large amounts of personal data.

Once the criminal obtains enough identifying information about an individual, a criminal can take over that individual’s identity to conduct a wide range of crimes.

We are also warned of identity theft in public places — criminals may watch you from a nearby location and gather important information from your conversations.

Stolen wallets and purses contain a source of valuable personal information.

Avoid becoming a victim of identity theft by following some simple rules:
Don’t give out personal information. Calls to your home claiming to be from either your credit card company or your bank requesting information they already have, such as your mother’s maiden name, is not necessary to give out.

Check your financial information regularly. Look over your credit card statements as well as all your bank statements when they come in. If there are any unusual charges, you can notify the financial institution before the problems escalate.

Request a copy of your credit report periodically. Compare the accounts shown on the report to the ones you know you have opened.

Look into the many free shred days provided by the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station.

If you become a victim even after taking precautionary steps, here is a checklist of actions that you should take, prepared by the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse:

Contact the Federal Trade Commission about the situation, call the fraud division of the principal credit reporting companies, contact your own creditors and financial institutions and contact local law enforcement.

In addition, the Better Business Bureau recommends that you don’t carry extra credit cards, a Social Security card, birth certificate or passport in a wallet or purse and that you cancel all unused credit cards.

A number of government agencies have information about various aspects of identity fraud. The Web site for the state Department of Consumer Affairs — www.dca.ca.gov — could be a good place to start looking.

Julie M. Sturgeon is a certified public accountant in Valencia specializing in individual and business tax issues. Her column represents her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “It’s Your Money” appears Thursdays and rotates between a handful of the valley’s financial professionals.

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