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Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
Jun 26, 2005

by Se Young Lee; Staff Writer

Most identity theft is low-tech;

Mailbox thefts, trash-bin diving and observed ID numbers are threats.
When Chad Jones applied for a home mortgage four years ago, he was told something he didn't expect - that there were "too many marks" on his credit.

Jones' credit report showed that he had more than $2,000 unpaid in utility bills at places he had never lived in. His mother, with whom he had a falling out, had been putting the charges in his name without his knowledge.

"My own mother," said Jones, who now lives in Ramsey. "I didn't know what to say." (Attempts to reach his mother last week were unsuccessful.)

Last week's discovery of a security breach at CardSystems Solutions, an Atlanta-based transaction processor, that exposed information from 40 million credit accounts, has put the spotlight on high-tech online fraud and identity theft. That scenario is still playing out across the globe, with the Japan Times reporting Tuesday that at least 30 Japanese credit card holders have been hit with fraudulent transactions because of the breach.

But identity theft can also happen through low-tech means: stolen mail, unshredded financial documents in garbage bins or human memory. While 205,568 - or 53 percent - of 388,603 fraud complaints filed in 2004 were Internet-related, the remaining 183,035 were not, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Overall, the Twin Cities area ranked 29th in the ratio of fraud complaints to population, averaging 120.9 complaints per 100,000 people, and 36th in identity theft-related complaints, averaging 73.9 claims per 100,000 people.

Experts say it's important to remember that the relatively high-tech CardSystems scandal is just one manifestation of the problem. While there's little consumers can do about online breaches, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from low-tech threats.

"It's dangerous to get locked into this crime, because it's just a narrow feature of this new world of ever-diminishing privacy and financial security as a result," said Doug Heller, executive director of Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights based in Santa Monica, Calif.

Jay Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center based in San Diego, said it is important to make sure that any item with a Social Security number, such as a health insurance card, should not be kept in a wallet or purse. He added that any documents, electronic or paper, containing personal information should be shredded or deleted with care.

Heller said his wife, Marlyn Musicant, has been fighting to clear up her name for five years after getting a call from a collection agent about a cell-phone account. She subsequently found other accounts opened in her name.

"The amount of time and headache and frustration my wife went through can't be measured in dollars," he said. "How many letters did she have to write, how many times did she have to listen to classical music to wait for AT&T's credit theft unit to pick up?  It's been that kind of frustration."

Heller suspects that the identity theft happened when some of their mail was delivered to a wrong address before being forwarded to them.

In Jones' case, his mother was able to open up the accounts simply by knowing his Social Security number. Jones said that when he spoke to a Qwest executive while trying to clear up the charges, he was told there were no safeguards to protect customers in situations such as his.

"They fought me and fought me on it because she was my biological mother and I must have known what she was doing," he said.

Jones followed every step that victims of identity theft are advised to take. He filed a report with the police after he discovered the accounts, then notified the major credit bureaus and put an alert on his credit file through the automated phone system. Afterward he filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and contacted the utility companies.

Even so, it took almost two years of making calls, arguing with companies and waiting on hold to clear his credit. He said that the majority of the utility providers simply required a copy of the police report and proof of his residency but that it was a stressful time.

Foley noted that continued vigilance is required. "There's always a possibility that the fraud can come back and hit you again," he said. "[If] I still have information about your identity, I can still use it."

Jones said, "That's what I've been thinking about every day."
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Se Young Lee is at vlee@startribune.com

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Experts recommend that consumers examine their credit reports at least once a year. The three major consumer credit agencies - Experian, Equifax and TransUnion - will provide consumers with a free credit report every year when requested.

It's possible to request all three credit reports at once. However, it's a good idea to stagger the requests, getting a report from one company every four months to see if anything has changed.

To request your reports, go to www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228.


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