By: Scott H. Belshaw, M.A.
The holidays are around the corner and it is a time for festivities and cheer. It is also, unfortunately, a time for scams and swindles. Identity theft scams have been on the rise for the last few years. Identity theft was the number two most reported crime to the federal government in 2003.According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, identity theft is a crime in which the imposter obtains key pieces of personal information such as Social Security and driver’s license numbers to obtain credit, merchandise and services in the name of the victim.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, 27.3 million Americans have been victims of some form of identity theft within the past five years. According to the FTC’s survey, last year’s identity theft losses to businesses and financial institutions totaled nearly $48 billion and consumer victims reported $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses.
Identity thieves get your information by going through your trash can, looking for straight-cut or unshredded papers. They steal your mail or your wallet and listen in on conversations you have in public. Sometimes they trick you into giving them the information over the telephone or by email. These latter two methods frequently occur with elderly victims. They can also steal your information from a loan or credit application form you filled out or from files at a hospital, bank, school or business that you deal with. These thieves may have obtained it from dumpsters outside of such companies. It is also common for a friend or relative or someone who works for you who has access to your information to steal your identity.
You can protect yourself by checking your credit reports once a year from all three of the credit reporting agencies. Guard your Social Security number. When possible, don’t carry your Social Security card with you. While doing that holiday shopping, do not put your Social Security number or driver’s license number on your checks. Make it a practice to never sign the backs of your credit cards; you may write “please check identification” in the signature space if you like. By utilizing these tips you can severely decrease your chances of having your identity tampered with.
For more information please go to the Federal Trade Commission’s website at http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/index.html
Scott Belshaw is senior partner of Scott H. Belshaw & Associates, a criminal justice investigations and consulting firm located in Houston, Texas. Mr. Belshaw is a graduate of the University of Houston- Clear Lake’s graduate program in criminology and frequently lectures on identity theft.