Posted by: zycos | August 31, 2007

Excuse me… your identity slip is showing.

Our government knows something needs be done about identity theft but doesn’t really know what to do about it. In attempts to look responsive they pass largely ineffectual laws, increasingly infringing upon privacy rights and restricting the freedoms of its own law abiding citizens.

By their own figures, identity theft touched 1.7 million people in 2005.

Frightening statistic, is it not?

NOT!

It does sound like a lot and if you’re included in that unfortunate number, it can certainly be a life interrupting, frustrating event. But in a nation of 300 million+ people, the percentage is .0058 of the current U.S. population. That’s right, not even half of a half of one percent. The way the media portrays it, every other person in America is a victim of identity theft and the person standing next to him or her is surely next.

(UPDATE: This figure was reported on the nightly news but in double checking the facts, I found only 685,000 cases initially reported as identity theft in 2005. Of that number, only 37% or 253,450 cases were actual identity theft (.00085% of the U.S. population) while the remaining 63% concerned various other types of consumer fraud cases. This information can be found of Page 4 of this link to the Governments Consumer Sentinel Program.)

I’m not making light of someone whose identity has been stolen but let’s take a realistic look at some of the reasons why that may have happened.

The news and special investigative reports dredge up intelligent appearing victims who claim to have exercised due diligence at safeguarding their personal and financial information. Yet, they still fell victim to identity theft. That’s enough to strike financial fear in any responsible person and certainly among the masses.

The problem is not unresponsive government, although they are not without complicity in this matter. The great State of Misery, uh, Missouri, actually sells personal information from it’s drivers license database to the highest bidders. That’s right. Name, address, DOB all sitting there to be used and abused. Mandatory information collected to grant you a driving privilege, then sold off for everything from junkmail to identity theft. Think it’s only Missouri? I bet not.

But even despite that serious fiduciary breach by the state, the true fault sits squarely on the victim’s shoulders. You heard it right. The victims are ultimately to blame for their own identity theft. Here’s how:

People still willingly give out their personal information to complete strangers and in the case of the internet, faceless strangers. Why? Many times it’s provided just for the asking.

Have you ever overheard a store salesclerk ask a customer for additional information to verify their check or credit card purchase? How about delivery information and when the best time someone will be home? The customer responds with the requested info in a normal speaking voice, sometimes even repeating it just to make certain the clerk gets it right. Uh-huh. The clerk and anybody standing close enough to be interested. Why would anybody in today’s society make it so easy for someone to rip them off?

Every time I overhear something like this, it makes me want to kick the salesclerk’s ass and slap the crap out of that customer. (Oh, sorry. I must remember my anger management classes.)

Just as a wakeup call, I’ve thought about calling that customer at home, verifying the delivery time and date, then politely informing them… I’m not the store. Hangup and let ’em wonder (and worry) about who that might have been. But I’m not that mean.

Reserving one simple right for yourself will protect your personal information more than any other measure. Remember it, live by it and fight for it: Just because someone or some entity asks for your private information it doesn’t, in any way, obligate you to give it. You’re not morally obligated, many times not legally obligated and not even under the guise of false patriotism, obligated to surrender it.

Even if they say it’s required, threatening to withhold services from utility companies, insurance companies and the like. I’ll pay a deposit if I have to, just to not submit a credit history with SSN. Not everyone can afford this and they do have you by the shorts, more or less, but you can still complain…and LOUDLY! Make it more trouble than it’s worth or demand to keep seeing the next higher supervisor until you get your way.

Companies can always justify their “needing” your private information. In reality and truth few need all of it, some might actually need some of it, most don’t need any of it.

Most just want it for their own (and their affiliates – which can mean anything) marketing purposes, others see it as a sacred cash cow. Regardless, your identity is at stake. You have every right to defend it, even a responsibility to yourself to do so. At least as much responsibility as they’ll tell you they have in collecting it.

Believe me, if they’re a legitimate company to begin with, they want your money far more than they want your social security number. (Beware when the money they get FOR your information exceeds the money they get FROM you.)

I’ve refused to complete health and life insurance forms where they ask for a social security number (which they cannot legally require) demanding they issue an “internally generated number” (remember that term) for administering my account. Without objection or exception, they issued my policies assigned with their own identifiable numbers.

That’s why I cringe at companies like Progressive Insurance and others, who require a credit check just to give you a quote. Kudos to Allstate who recognized a ballpark quote will suffice for most comparison shopping and offer your choice with or without the credit check.

And I’ve taken my business elsewhere. When a storage facility required my fingerprints and SSN, citing their participation in a police-sponsored drug awareness program, I’m the one who just said, “No.” Without surrendering that specific identity, they refused to rent me a 5×10 storage space saying, “If I had nothing to hide, I wouldn’t object.” What? My state issued photo driver’s license wasn’t enough to rent a storage space? Get real.

(I hoped enough people would object to this program where the merchant would have to decide whether to stand on its false doctrine or stay in business. I was disheartened to learn many people were so obviously in need of extra storage space they complied without even a whimper. This kind of silent surrender only fuels more useless and invasive information mining schemes.)

The responsibility of protecting your identity belongs to you, not the government. The laws are already there. You need to inform yourself and be more assertive in safeguarding your private information. Nobody is going to do that better than you. If you think youself already vigilant, consider how many times you’ve filled out a questionnaire, entered a contest or completed a new patient medical form? How much information have you voluntarily, if unwittingly, provided?

How about when you write out checks printed with your name, address, phone number and then add your social security or drivers license number for further proof to your identity?

Ever pay your credit card bill and write your account number on the “Memo” line? Now they have your name, address, bank name, checking account number and your credit card number. Don’t forget to put your account number in the space provided on the outside of the envelope, you know, right under your return name and address.

Jeez! How dumb can people be?

And my personal pet peeve: Well meaning people who excitedly publish their family tree on the internet. Oh, now anyone with the same last name can find out if they’re related. Isn’t that fun? No. It’s moronic. And extremely dangerous in terms of hurdling the last criteria for positive identification – your mother’s maiden name. Or hell, your great grandmother’s maiden name for that matter. Why don’t you just post all your personal and private financial information on the web and invite everyone to have a crack at it?

I love the responsible folks who think they’re so I.D. savvy and proudly announce they would never buy anything on the internet. Those same dolts will travel out of town, dine at an unknown restaurant and hand a perfect stranger their credit card. The waiter disappears with your card in hand for 3 maybe 5 minutes or more. You don’t get nervous about that, do you?

You should.

What do you think can be done with your card and a copy machine in those 3-5 minutes? Even a basic pencil can copy the vital card information including your “failsafe” 3 digit ‘Securecode.’ You’ve just given that stranger all the pertinent information needed to make a successful online or telephone sale, including your signature. And they know you’re on vacation so that’ll give them an extra couple days to sack your credit line before you get home.

The facade of security permeates our society. The media reports on it. Government officials thump their chest with concern. And the only ones who can actually do something about it are the credit card companies who issue the card in the first place. But they don’t do as much as they could. If it wasn’t so serious, it’d be a joke.

To their credit (no pun intended) some card issuers have begun to alias a random number in place of the actual card number. The alias is tied to their internal records but supposedly unavailable to the merchant. That’s a start. Having each user on an account be provided his or her own alias number would serve even better.

But what about the people working at the credit card companies? Could a disgruntled employee be selling your information to someone else at $50 a pop? Sure they could. The people working at credit card companies are just like anybody else. Most of them are honest but enough of them aren’t. And it really only takes one.

What if all of them were honest? Is it thinkable they may have a friend or family member who isn’t? Of course.

A more recent scam is thieves who set up fake companies on the internet, advertise too-good-to-be-true prices, usually on electronics, never intending to deliver the goods. They just want to capture your credit card information.

It’s amazing how having a simple merchant account, even for a tiny home based business, can extract all your personal data from one purchase. I was always amazed at the information delivered me with every purchase made on my site. If I was a bad person, I could have used that information a thousand different ways.

And how about this one: A large, national mortgage company erroneously put my fax number on all its satellite office fax machines (they were just one digit off.) I began receiving 15, 25 and 30 page, completely revealing, financial documents for some very wealthy clients purchasing new homes.

Over a period of about 6 months I repeatedly emailed this company, faxed them and even called to alert them of their error. I finally told them I would begin contacting their clients directly and explain how careless this mortgage company was with their financial records. That stopped the faxes… for about a year. Then a couple more loan packets came through again. This time I threatened legal action to recover my lost time and expenses. Since then I’ve only received one more packet. Amazing. Simply amazing.

Know this:
Your liability in the unauthorized use of a credit card is only $50. It’s a federal law and clearly printed in your card issuers terms. You have a responsibility to report a lost card within so many days of discovering it lost but that’s about it. All that special insurance they offer so you don’t have to pay thousands in unauthorized charges, is just a ploy to pry more dollars from your wallet.

Compare that to your ATM debit card where you entire bank balance is at stake. Lose that card and you risk financial ruin. Think they can’t use it without your secret PIN number? Guess again. Every crook knows by pushing the “Credit” button instead of the “Debit” button at the checkout line authorizes the use of an ATM Debit card WITHOUT a PIN number. Duh! (See what I mean by the credit industry not doing enough? A simple programming change at the main terminal would prevent this.)

So, you have a whole bunch of people running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to solve a problem that isn’t a problem for anybody except the companies who issued the damn card in the first place. They don’t appear too concerned about it, so why should you?

To protect your credit. ‘Cause nobody else is interested in protecting your credit. Nobody. Not the credit card companies. Not the government.

Ask the 1.7 million people how easy it was to get their credit reports corrected. The big 3 credit reporting companies have the upper hand in determining when and if they’ll correct inaccuracies in your file. There should be a law requiring them to do so within 60 days of receiving notice from you. After all, if you’re lying they can always destroy your rating at a later date. But if you’re honest like most people, you’ll play hell getting all 3 bureaus to unanimously remove errors and adjust for inconsistencies.

So the first line of protecting your personal and sensitive information is really, up to you. Guard it wisely and always respond to their questions with one of your own, “Why do you want to know.”

The military calls it “On a need to know basis.” More often than not, the drones asking for your personal information don’t really have “a legitimate need to know.”

It’s your credit, use it and protect it wisely.

Addendum: My father used to have a police scanner. The kind you buy at Radio Shack. We’d sit there for hours listening to routine traffic stops. The officer would always call in for verification of a stopped motorists credentials. Among information provided would be the detainee’s name, address, license plate and drivers license number along with date of birth. Though we didn’t think about it then, there’s certainly enough information to assist any identity theft operation. More frequently the Social Security Number is being reported along with this information for anyone with a scanner to hear… or use.

Just some disquieting food for thought the next time you’re pulled over.

OK. Here’s the Doodle-O’da-Day. Kinda apropos, given the subject matter.

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C’ya!

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