My phone rang at 3 A.M. the other day. As calls at that hour go, it wasn't so terrible. No one I know had been rushed to the hospital. This was an emergency of another sort: my credit was under attack, and I needed to act fast.
Someone had tried to wire $400 from my MasterCard to an account in Bosnia. The transaction raised red flags at Western Union, which refused the transfer. Still, I was advised to shut down my credit card immediately. I called my bank, which had already taken that step--though not before nearly $2,000 in fraudulent charges had been put through in the hours since I had gone to bed.
Identity theft hits all age groups, but adults over 50 are especially vulnerable because they have established credit and larger limits. Beyond that, says Rod Griffin, manager of public education for Experian, one of the big three credit-reporting agencies, "they are more trusting and less familiar with electronic transactions."
This time of year is when you need to be most alert. Heavy retail activity through January brings out the crooks. Keep a sharp eye on your January bills, which may offer your first clues to a usurped identity. Check carefully for unauthorized charges.
Identity theft is a growth industry, and thieves get more inventive every year. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) counted 255,000 identity-theft complaints last year, up 3% from 2004, although most occurrences never get reported. The FTC estimates 9 million Americans got hit last year, with losses totaling $56.6 billion. Only 1 in 700 cases ever gets prosecuted, a risk-reward equation that suggests that these kinds of criminals will keep multiplying.
The latest scam involves crooks' calling and identifying themselves as court officials, advising that they have a warrant for your arrest for failure to report for jury duty. You must confirm your identity and book a date to serve as a juror soon or be dragged in. "Just like that, folks get talked out of their Social Security number," says Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, which counsels victims.
I fell for an older phishing scam. After ignoring several official-looking requests from AOL for updated information, I finally responded when threatened with being disconnected in 24 hours. Pressed for time and unable to reach anyone at AOL, I went against my better judgment. The fraud began within minutes. "The number of ways bad guys can convince you to give them your financial information is limited only by their imagination," says Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesman, who says AOL blocks 7 million attempts a day.
There are ways to cut the odds of being a victim. Never give in to urgent or threatening communications, as I did. (And the jury scam probably won't work if you do your civic duty.) For more tips, go to ftc.gov Some key precautions:
GET A SHREDDER They cost as little as $15, and you'll never have to worry about Dumpster divers, who sift the trash for discarded financial statements.
SHOP AT SECURE WEBSITES The Web addresses should start with https. The s signals secure. Do not go to an online shop by clicking on a pop-up or link in an e-mail.