By Amberlie Romney
It is a nine-digit number, which is as much a part of U.S. citizens as their name or birth date.
But if the wrong hands get it, the consequence can be a nightmare.
The Social Security number can be the key to stealing a person”s identity, said Tim Taylor, a Utah County deputy attorney.
Tim Price knows.
The Bountiful resident gave his Social Security number to a lawyer who said he needed it for tax purposes.
The number was misused, damaging Price”s credit.
“Don”t give anyone your Social Security number, no matter what,” he said. “And follow your credit very closely. Watch for anything unusual.”
Under Utah code 76-6-1102, identity fraud is when a person intentionally “obtains identifying information of another person without authorization of that person,” and then proceeds to use that information to obtain “credit, goods, services, or any other thing of value or medical information in the name of that person.”
In addition to Social Security numbers, other identifying information is increasingly accessible through new technology and communications systems.
“In our day, we have grown accustomed to sharing information. We”ve created more data out there on ourselves than we ever have before,” said Bill Welsh, president and owner of Provo Credit Bureau.
“With increasing data availability, we have also increased the possibility of someone misusing that data.”
Thieves snag personal information through credit card receipts, bank statements or un-mailed credit card offers found in garabage cans.
They also retrieve information from stolen wallets or hacked computer systems.
“One thing you can do is shred everything,” Taylor said.
But, the garbage is not the only place to find information.
Mailboxes are not safe either as Alison Bergstrom, a recent BYU graduate, discovered last year.
Bergstrom dropped her bills in an outgoing mailbox, but they never made it to the bill collectors.
Someone took her checks, copied the account number and created new checks using a phony name and address.
After bouncing numerous checks, she checked with the bank and discovered her account had been wiped clean.
“Never put bills in an outgoing mailbox. Always take them to a secure mailbox or to the post office,” Bergstrom said.
Taylor said that once a thief has a person”s account number or Social Security number, he could call a credit-reporting agency to make a change of address.
The agency would likely believe it was speaking with the correct person and send the person a copy of his or her credit report to the new address.
In the end, ID thieves find a way.
“If a bank robber wants to rob a bank, they can,” Welsh said.
But students can take precautions.
Students should not give out personal information unless it is in a confidential manner at a secure location, Welsh said.
Before moving from apartments, students should notify the utility company, the bank and other companies sending statements.
The Federal Identity Theft Prevention Web site recommends that people contact creditors if bills do not arrive on time.
They also advise that people ask to use other identifiers rather than the Social Security number when possible, and minimize the identification information carried with them.
If there is a suspicion that personal information is misused, credit bureaus should be contacted to place a “fraud alert” on the person”s credit report.
Taylor said that students should not give credit card numbers over the phone unless they initiate the call, especially to solicitors trying to raise money for various causes.