Here's the scary thing about the identity-theft ring that the feds cracked last week: there was nothing any of its estimated 40,000 victims could have done to prevent it from happening. This was an inside job, according to court documents. A lowly help-desk worker at Teledata Communications, a software firm that helps banks access credit reports online, allegedly stole passwords for those reports and sold them to a group of 20 thieves at $60 a pop. That allowed the gang to cherry-pick consumers with good credit and apply for all kinds of accounts in their names. Cost to the victims: $3 million and rising.
Even scarier is that this, the largest identity-theft bust to date, is just a drop in the bit bucket. More than 700,000 Americans have their credit hijacked every year. It's one of crime's biggest growth markets. A name, address and Social Security number--which can often be found on the Web--is all anybody needs to apply for a bogus line of credit. Credit companies make $1.3 trillion annually and lose less than 2% of that revenue to fraud, so there's little financial incentive for them to make the application process more secure. As it stands now, it's up to you to protect your identity.
The good news is that there are plenty of steps you can take. Most credit thieves are opportunists, not well-organized gangs. A lot of them go Dumpster diving for those millions of "pre-approved" credit-card mailings that go out every day. Others steal wallets and return them, taking only a Social Security number. Shredding your junk mail and leaving your Social Security card at home can save a lot of agony later.
But the most effective way to keep your identity clean is to check your credit reports once or twice a year. There are three major credit-report outfits: Equifax (at equifax.com) Trans-Union www.transunion.com and Experian experian.com) All allow you to order reports online, which is a lot better than wading through voice-mail hell on their 800 lines. Of the three, I found TransUnion's website to be the cheapest and most comprehensive--laying out state-by-state prices, rights and tips for consumers in easy-to-read fashion.
If you're lucky enough to live in Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey or Vermont, you are entitled to one free report a year by law. Otherwise it's going to cost $8 to $14 each time. Avoid services that offer to monitor your reports year-round for about $70; that's $10 more than the going rate among thieves.
If you think you're a victim of identity theft, you can ask for fraud alerts to be put on file at each of the three credit-report companies. You can also download a theft-report form at www.consumer.gov/idtheft which, along with a local police report, should help when irate creditors come knocking. Just don't expect justice. That audacious help-desk worker was one of the fewer than 2% of identity thieves who are ever caught.
Questions? You can e-mail Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org