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Wayne Black & Associates
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What would you do if your credit cards were stolen?  If merchandise that you did not purchase was charged to your credit accounts? If unauthorized credit accounts were opened in your name?

These actions are examples of credit fraud, also referred to as identity fraud, identity theft, and account takeover fraud, where criminals steal victim’s identities in order to take over their credit accounts.  Identity theft is becoming a tremendous problem in this country, especially South Florida.  It has become one of the fastest growing types of fraud.  It can strike anyone and affects everyone.   When criminals buy goods and services on credit using false information, we all pay through higher prices and more expensive credit terms, and when someone is victimized by a particularly successful scam, criminals are more likely to continue cheating others using similar fraudulent operations.

This memo is a compilation of articles and ideas designed to help protect you against identity theft and provide you with helpful resources.

Identity theft occurs whenever an unauthorized individual uses your personal information (name, SSN, credit card numbers, etc.) to open new accounts or charge merchandise in your name without your permission.  While you may think your personal information is secure, often, it is not.  There are a number of common sense measures you can use to effectively defend yourself against fraudulent activity and minimize the costs of credit fraud.

 - Safeguard your credit cards and treat them like cash.

 - Reduce the number of credit cards you use, and do not carry them all with you.

 - If a credit card bill is late, call the customer service number immediately.  Make sure that your mail has not been diverted to a new address.

 - Review your statement carefully to make sure all charges are accurate.

 - Report billing errors and lost or stolen cards to your credit insurer immediately.

 - Minimize the amount of personal information a criminal can steal.  Do not carry extra credit cards, a Social Security card, birth certificate, or passport.

 - Sign your new cards as soon as you receive them.

 - Never give a card number or other information over the phone or the internet unless you initiated the call or access.

 - Shred pre-approved credit card offers, credit card receipts, credit card checks, copies of airline tickets, and anything else that displays your credit card    information before putting them in the trash.

 - Check your credit report for accuracy at least once per year.

Act immediately to minimize damage.  In dealing with the authorities and financial institutions, keep a log of all conversations, including dates, names, and phone numbers.  Note time spent and any expenses incurred.  Confirm conversations in writing.  Send correspondence by certified mail (return receipt requested).  Keep copies of all letters and documents.  Some of the steps recommended are as follows:

§ Credit bureaus.  Immediately call the consumer/credit bureaus fraud units of the three credit reporting companies --Experian (formerly TRW), Equifax and Trans Union.  Report the theft of your credit cards or numbers.  Ask that your account be flagged and ask for a copy of your report (if you are a victim of fraud, the first report is usually free).  Also, add a victim’s statement to your report, up to 100 words.  (“My ID has been used to apply for credit fraudulently.  Contact me at 311-123-4567 to verify all applications.”) The Fair Credit Reporting Act (15 U.S.C. SS 1681 – 1682t) allows such “100 word” statements, as well as mandating that the Credit Reporting Bureaus review and investigate your allegations of error and return a report within 30 days. Be sure to ask how long the fraud alert is posted on your account, and how you can extend it if necessary.

§ Equifax information: their fraud report # is (800) 525-6285; their credit order report # is (800) 685-1111; their web site is www.equifax.com or write: P.O. Box 740250, Atlanta, GA 30374-0250.  To order a copy of the report ($8 in most states) write to:  P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374—0241, or phone 1-800-997-2493.

§ Experian information: their fraud report # is (888) EXPERIAN (397-3742); their credit order report # is the same.  Their web site is www.experian.com or write:  P.O. Box 949, Allen, TX 75013.  To order a copy of the report ($8 in most states) write to:  P.O. Box 2104,  Allen, TX 75013.

§ Trans Union information:  their fraud report # is (800) 680-7289; their credit order report # is (800) 916-8800; their web site is www.tuc.com or write:  P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634.  To order a copy of the report ($8 in most states) write to:  P.O. Box 390,  Springfield, PA 19064.

Be aware that these measures may not entirely stop new fraudulent accounts from being opened by the impostor.  Ask the credit bureaus, in writing, to provide you with free copies every few months so you can monitor your credit report.  Ask the credit bureaus for names and phone numbers of credit grantors with whom fraudulent accounts have been opened.  Ask the credit bureaus to remove inquiries that have been generated due to the fraudulent access.  You may also ask the credit bureaus to notify those who have received your credit report in the last six months in order to alert them to the disputed and erroneous information (two years for employers.)

Creditors.  Contact all creditors immediately with whom your name has been used fraudulently – by phone and in writing.  Get replacement cards with new account numbers for your own accounts that have been used fraudulently.  Ask that old accounts be processed as “account closed at consumer’s request.”  (This is better than “card lost or stolen,” because when this statement is reported to credit bureaus, it can be interpreted as blaming you for the loss.)  Carefully monitor your mail and credit card bills for evidence of new fraudulent activity.  Report it immediately to credit grantors.

Contact the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.  Ask to speak with someone in the security or fraud department, and follow up in writing.  Following up with a letter is one of the procedures spelled out in the Fair Credit Billing Act for resolving errors on credit billing statements, including charges or electronic fund transfers that you have not made.

Report the crime to local police and sheriff’s departments with jurisdiction.  If you think the fraud occurred on military base, contact NCIS.  Give them as much documented evidence as possible.  Keep a record of all your telephone calls and reports.

Stolen checks.  If you have had checks stolen or bank accounts set up fraudulently, report it to the check verification companies.  Put stop payments on any outstanding checks that you are unsure of.  Cancel your checking and savings accounts and obtain new account numbers.  Give the bank a secret password for your account (not mother’s maiden name or SSN).

ATM cards.  If your ATM card has been stolen or compromised, get a new card, account number and password.  Do not use your old password.  When creating a password, do not use common numbers like the last four digits of your Social Security number or your birth date.  Immediate notification to the bank, upon review of your account statement, will limit your losses dramatically due to the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (15 U.S.C. S 1666, 12 CFR Part 205), or EFTA.  The time limits for action under EFTA are severely constrained:  if you provide notice to a bank/financial institution within 2 business days from date of receipt of your statement then your maximum exposure is $50; if you provide notice within 2-60 business days then your maximum exposure is $500; if you provide notice after 61 business days you face unlimited exposure – no protections under the EFTA, although other protections may be available.

Fraudulent change of address.  Notify the local Postal Inspector if you suspect an identity thief has filed a change of your address with the post office or has used the mail to commit credit or bank fraud.  (Call the Postmaster to obtain the phone number, 1-800-275-8777).  Find out where fraudulent credit cards were sent.  Notify the local Postmaster for that address to forward all mail in your name to your own address. Talk with the mail carrier in your area if possible. www.usps.gov/websites/depart/inspect

Social Security Number misuse.  Call the Social Security Administration (SSA) to report fraudulent use of your Social Security number.  Report fraud to 1-800-269-0271.  As a last resort, you might want to change your number…The SSA will only change it if you fit their fraud victim criteria.  Obtain Social Security Pub 05-10064 “When Someone Misuses Your Social Security Number.”  Also order a copy of your Earnings and Benefits Statement and check it for accuracy; call (800) 772-1213.  www.ssa.gov

Passports.  If you have a passport, notify the passport office in writing to be on the lookout for anyone ordering a new passport fraudulently.  http://travel.state.gov/passport_services.html

Phone service.  If your long distance calling card has been stolen or you discover fraudulent charges on your bill, cancel the account and open a new one.  Provide a password which must be used any time the account is changed.  Again, file a police report and contact the fraud section of the phone company.

Drivers license number misuse.  You may need to change your driver’s license number if someone is using yours as identification on bad checks. Call the state office of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to see if another license was issued in your name.  Put a fraud alert on your license.  Go to your local DMV to request a new number.  Also, fill out the DMV’s complaint form to begin the fraud investigation process. Send supporting documents with the completed form to the nearest DMV investigation office.

False civil and criminal judgments.  Sometimes victims of identity theft are wrongfully accused of crimes committed by the impostor.  If a civil judgment has been entered in your name for actions taken by your impostor, contact the court where the judgment was entered and report that you are a victim of identity theft.  If you are being wrongfully prosecuted for criminal charges, contact a lawyer before you contact the authorities.

Legal help.  You may want to consult an attorney to determine legal action to take against creditors and/or credit bureaus if they are not cooperative in removing fraudulent entries from your credit report or if negligence is a factor.  Contact your Legal Assistance Office for assistance and input.  You may also call the local Bar Association to find an attorney who specializes in consumer law and the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

FTC.  Involve the Federal Trade Commission.  The Federal Trade Commission is the federal clearinghouse for consumer complaints about identity theft.  The information your provide can help the Commission and other law enforcement agencies track, investigate and prosecute identity thieves.  You can file a complaint with the FTC by contacting the Consumer Response Center by phone:  toll free 877-FTC-HELP (382-4357); TDD: 202-326-2502; by mail:  Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20580; or through the Internet, using the online complaint form.  Although the Commission cannot resolve individual problems for consumers, it can act against a company if it sees a pattern of possible law violations.  The FTC publishes free brochures on many consumer issues.  For a complete list of publications, write for Best Sellers, Consumer Response Center, Federal Trade Commission 600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, D.C. 20580; or call toll free (877) FTC-HELP (382-4357), TDD (202) 326-2502.  www.ftc.gov

Don’t give in.  Finally, do not pay any bill or portion of a bill which is a result of identity theft.  Do not cover any checks which were written and/or cashed fraudulently.  Your credit rating should not be permanently affected,  and no legal action should be taken against you.  If any merchant, financial institutions or collection agency suggest otherwise, simply restate your willingness to cooperate, but don’t allow yourself to be coerced into paying fraudulent bills.

Some helpful web-sites:
Privacy Right Clearinghouse (the fact sheets)
ACLU (click ‘privacy’)
Privacy Times; Bi-weekly newsletter
Social Security Pub 05-10064 - “When Someone Misuses Your Social Security Number”
Federal Trade Commission (click Consumer, then Privacy, then Consumer Education)
Public Interest Research Group (click on Consumer, then Privacy)
Electronic Privacy Information Center