Victims put life on hold to restore credit

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    By Theresa Kasallis

    As incidents of identity theft continue to rise, resources are becoming more readily available to prevent future fraud and help victims get back on their feet.

    ID theft victims spend a considerable amount of time and energy trying to restore their good names and financial records, according to a 2006 Federal Trade Commission report.

    “The first thing you want to do is call one of the three major consumer reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on your credit report,” said Claudia Farrell, spokeswoman for the FTC. “If you call one of the agencies they will contact the other two.”

    Those three agencies are Experian, Equifax and Transunion. The three bureaus are all required by law to issue a free annual credit report to all consumers. Copies can be requested online or by phone.

    “If there are any accounts that are tampered with, you have to contact one of the agencies right away,” Farrell said. “There are slightly different procedures you follow for different situations.”

    Farrell said if any identification or financial records are stolen, the victim”s immediate response should be to report the violation to local law enforcement. By doing this, a victim has a better chance of winning a dispute with credit card companies if fraudulent charges are made.

    “If you lose your purse, as opposed to someone accessing one of your accounts, and if you had your bank book, credit cards or brokerage accounts in your purse, you should cancel them immediately and file a police report which will help consumers dispute charges at a later time,” Farrell said.

    Victims will spend, on average, 600 hours trying to recover from ID theft, said Diana Cornell, Utah Attorney General identity theft division spokeswoman.

    “Overall, social security is the most threatening form [of ID theft] because with your social security number people can create an entirely new identity,” Cornell said. “It is increasing and is becoming the fastest-growing crime in the United States. I spend most of my days assisting people and helping them recover from the credit problems.”

    Nearly 33 percent of crimes involving ID theft are reported to law enforcement, according to the Utah Attorney General”s Office Identity Theft Reporting Information System (IRIS). The division strongly advocates reporting identity theft crimes to combat the problem. IRIS goals include helping Utah citizens reduce ID theft burdens by giving aid in the reporting process and automatically routing ID theft complaints to local law enforcement agencies, according to the IRIS Web site.

    Cornell said the ramifications of ID theft can go on for years, and most people will spend those years trying to recover, if they can.

    Paul Stephens, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse policy analyst, agreed with Cornell and said while it may take a long time for some victims to recover, others can recuperate from identity theft relatively quickly.

    “Most individuals eventually will recover from identity theft, but the recovery process can be frustrating,” Stephens said.

    Farrell feels the situation is improving. “We receive more complaints about identity theft every year, but it is not because it is increasing; just because the awareness is increasing,” she said.

    Cornell isn”t the only one who sees this trend on the rise. Now, more than ever, businesses are trying to increase ID theft awareness to members and consumers to avoid future fraud. Citibank, an organization offering a variety of banking and financial services, frequently airs humorous commercials aimed at victims and consumers, said Jennifer Riordan, Citibank spokeswoman.

    “The goal is to increase awareness and show that we provide services for our card members and that we can help them with fraud issues,” Riordan said. “We have an identity solution ID tool kit that we give to card members, and this literally walks them through letters to write, how to avoid potential fraud in the future, police department contacts, how to file with the credit bureaus and how to put a fraud alert on their credit report.”

    Sheila Gordon, director of victim assistance at the Identity Theft Resource Center, explained there are many types of ID theft: financial, criminal, cloning and child identity theft.

    “Financial identity theft is using [someone”s] identity to obtain goods and services such as lines of credit, accounts that are open, cars and mortgages,” Gordon said. “Criminal identity [theft] is when someone commits a crime, and instead of being arrested for their identity, they”re prosecuted under your identity.”

    Cloning falls under the working identity theft category and occurs when someone pays off taxes or pays into social security under a different identity, Gordon said.

    Two common types of ID theft include account takeover and application fraud. Account takeover occurs when a thief uses existing credit cards, account numbers and expiration date to purchase goods or services, according to the Privacy Rights Clearing House. Application fraud is the result of a thief using social security numbers to open new accounts. Victims don”t discover this type of fraud until they obtain a monthly account statement.

    “Account takeover fraud is generally easier to correct,” said Stephens. “Criminal identity theft, giving another individual”s name and information to an officer during an arrest or investigation, is generally the hardest to correct.”

    Farrell said there are many red flags that people should look out for. By being aware of one”s account status and credit reports, a person can significantly decrease his or her chances of becoming a victim of ID theft.

    “If you stop receiving bills, if you receive bills for accounts that you didn”t open, if you see charges on your credit or charge account that you didn”t make, or if you get denied for credit for no particular reason, can all be red flags,” Farrell said. “The more quickly consumers discover they are a victim, the more quickly they can stop the problem. So consumers should be careful about reading their bills.”

    Resources are available for many college-aged students who are trying to establish or protect their line of credit. Accessing annualcreditreport.com, a Web site authorized to issue free credit reports.

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