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Commentary: Identify theft begins with golden opportunities

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. (ACCNS) -- (ACCNS) In the past month, I've been offered a share of $12.8 million from the son of an unfortunate stone merchant in Sierra Leone and a sizeable share of $20.5 million from the son of an unfortunate farmer in Zimbabwe. I've received reminders from two separate banks to 'reconfirm my account details' to prevent identity theft. And, I had two requests to verify my mortgage application (that I never applied for).

Wow! How lucky can one person get? Six golden opportunities: Opportunities to give my personal information to people I have never met, who are offering dubious - if not illegal - transactions, and who, as likely as not, wish to do me the favor of relieving me of my cash, my good credit rating, and for all intents and purposes, my identity.

Scams like these are sadly not uncommon, and it takes a certain amount of caution on the part of individuals to make sure they protect themselves.

"A good rule of thumb to live by is that if you don't initiate the contact and know exactly who (or what institution) you are contacting, you don't give out personal information,"
said Maj. R. Curtis McNeil, Air Combat Command's chief of aviation and information law. "If, for instance, a bank calls asking you to 're-verify' your account number, you have to ask yourself why they don't have that information in the first place."

If callers ask for re-verification of information, Major McNeil suggests taking all the callers' details to include their name, phone number and employee identification code and offer to call them back.

"It's crucial, however, that you don't use the number they give you," Major McNeil said.

Instead, use a number you are certain is for the company in question such as the toll-free number found on the back of credit cards, and ask for the person who called you by name.

"If it was a legitimate call, you'll get the person on the line. If not, you'll have saved yourself a potential nightmare of lost money, bad credit and other inconveniences," the major explained.

Make no mistake, the money lost can be significant, even if your bank account doesn't make it look that way.

"I've known military people who are pre-approved for $100,000 in credit and that's the big pay-off for these criminals," Major McNeil said. "Sure, they'll empty your savings account, but what they want to do is create new accounts for large amounts and take that money too."

In fact, the damage a crook can do with some of your personal information goes beyond the dollars and cents - there is also the damage done to a person's feelings of security using information and the credibility of legitimate services whose names were used as part of the ploy.

For people who don't want to wait until it's too late to prevent disaster, local family support centers offer a variety of financial courses.

"We brief ID theft at most of our courses," said Susie Markel, community readiness consultant at Langley Air Force Base, Va. "ID theft is the fastest growing segment of consumer fraud, with more than 93 million cases reported in 2003."

Miss Markel recommends that people go to their family support centers to gather information about identity theft and learn how to protect themselves from fraudsters who range from dumpster-divers combing forms for personal information to email scammers.

But most importantly, don't respond to unsolicited email opportunities. As the old adage states, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


Sidebar:  Identity theft precautions
Even if you haven't been the victim of identity theft, it's a good idea to take a few precautionary steps to ensure you're aware of your credit.

1. Call the three major credit reporting agencies directly and request a credit report. It's a good idea to do this at least annually. Don't use a third party to get the reports - go direct to the credit bureaus.
2. Review your credit reports and send the bureaus a letter noting any discrepancies.
3. Make sure accounts you no longer use are listed as 'closed' on your credit report to maximize your credit score.
4. Be sure your address and other personal information is up to date with all credit bureaus and with all your creditors.

To obtain a copy of your credit report, call one or all of the following agencies:
* Equifax at www.equifax.com or call 1.800.685.1111;
* Experian at www.experian.com or call 1.888.397.3742; or
* TransUnion at www.transunion.com or call 1.800.888.4213.

What to do if you think you've been the victim of identity theft:
1. As soon as possible, notify all credit card issuers and your bank to alert them of the potential theft. By making a fraud alert, you not only limit a thief's ability to use your current account, you also limit their ability to open new accounts under your name.
2. Ensure you make arrangements to pay all your creditors. Direct deposits, allotments and automatic payments may be affected by a fraud alert. By making arrangements to keep up with your obligations you will limit the potential damage done to your credit while your new cards and accounts are being opened.

How to protect yourself from identity theft:
1. Avoid using your social security number whenever possible. Never give it to someone unless you call them and you're certain of the legitimacy of the number you dial.
2. Consider using details other than the standard "mother's maiden name" for security purposes. Maiden names are a matter of public record and can be obtained by thieves.
3. Treat your personal information like you'd treat cash - don't leave it lying around.
4. Never give personal information over the phone unless you initiate the call.

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