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Identity Theft is No Laughing Matter
It’s a crisp November night, the Friday after Thanksgiving, and you’re waiting for your car to warm-up before you start that long drive back home from your father’s house in Philly, to North Jersey. There’s a tap at your driver’s side window, you look up into a blinding beam of light. It’s the police. The officer motions for you to roll down your window; he wants to know why you’re sitting in the car with the engine running.
You explain that you’re sitting in front of your father’s house waiting for your car to warm-up and you’ll be on your way in a minute or two. “License, registration, and insurance,” the officer barks, as though he gave no thought to what you just said. You’re no criminal, you own a business, you’ve served in the Air Force, you haven’t been drinking, and you’ve got a wife and two beautiful little girls to get home to, so you comply without an argument. “it’s no Big deal,” you’re thinking, “I still have to wait for the car to warm-up anyway,” as the officer retreats to his vehicle.
A minute later you’re being removed from your car, placed in handcuffs and being read your rights. You want to know what’s going on and you’re told a bench warrant, from a town you don’t remember being in, has been issued, for a ticket you can’t remember receiving. “When did I get a ticket in East Orange?,” you ask more to yourself then anyone else. You start singing that sad ol’ song, and it’s falling on deaf ears, because the cops, well they’ve heard this familiar refrain everyday from everybody they’ve ever put the bracelets on, since they first put on a uniform. You know the tune, “It’s not me officer, you got the wrong guy.”
The cops even have a word for this, TODDI. Stands for The Other Dude Did It. Needless to say, you’re on your way to the police station to try and straighten this thing out.Your car gets impounded and you’re transported to the East Orange, NJ police station, all the while you have no information regarding this ticket or its court date. It’s Friday night, you get your fingerprints and photos taken, call your wife and tell her what’s happening: Court’s isn’t until Monday evening and because you were arrested for skipping court, no bail is set. Funny thing is she can’t remember seeing any court notices either.
Monday can’t come fast enough; you’re finally taken to see the judge, he opens “your” folder. Lo and behold they’re not looking for “you” – you can go. Seems someone’s using your name to break the law. It doesn’t end with that. That first incident was years ago. A few weeks ago the East Orange police, accompanied by a local patrol person, show up at your house with the same warrant. This time you’re handcuffed in front of your wife who is 7-months pregnant, your 4 & 5-year old girls and your neighbors. This time it only took three hours to straighten out the situation. Now, you carry a letter from the court all the time, it states that you’re not the person for whom they are looking. This could happen for the rest of your life, you have to prove “I am me.”
Previously, we believed the cliché, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” to be pragmatic. Now, we understand the problem: You Can’t Prevent Identity Theft!
You can’t stop the millions of bits of information already in databases about you. However, you can protect yourself. First, knowing what’s on your credit report! For this to be effective you need the information from all three credit repositories: Equifax, TransUnion, & Experian. Secondly, having your credit continually monitored will alert you to any changes to or inquires into your credit report; the sooner the crime is detected the sooner you get your life back. Unfortunately, too many of us play the wait-and-see card, my credit stinks anyway game, or I don’t use the internet so I’m safe charade, which allows these crooks to run up hundreds or thousands of dollars on new accounts opened in our names, apply for employment or medical benefits in our name, or as in this case, using your name to avoid criminal prosecution.
All that stands between you, employment, healthcare, a home or a loan, a criminal record, or liability for income taxes, because some jerk took a job using your personal information, is your good name. A Report by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in September 2003 states: 1 out of 6 people fall victim to identity thieves yearly. Waiting and seeing is no longer an option. Your good name demands you become proactive.
I love a good laugh, but identity theft is no joke, even though Citibank® would have us believe otherwise. If you’ve watched any television at all, since the commercials debuted. You’ve most likely seen the commercial where the couch potato with the “valley-girl” voice-over whines, “first I hit the checking account and then I went to the mall – fifteen hundred dollllars for a leather bustier.” “She” doesn’t care, it wasn’t her money. She had already emptied the “poor slob’s” checking account.
I know humor sells and it sounds cute unless you’re the “poor slob,” or any of the other millions people who have been victimized. The theft of people’s identities is not a new crime; the information needed has become easily available. Partly due to the internet and the lax security protocols of our banks and other financial institutions’, some of the blame rests with our need for convenience. We let our waiter or waitress walk away, to who knows where, to do who knows what, with our credit cards. We leave our outgoing mail in our mailboxes with the flag up, signals anybody can see. We discard important documents, with sensitive personal information on them, without first shredding them. We carry our social security card and use it as a form of ID. It’s no wonder that for the sixth consecutive year, identity theft is the top consumer complaint.
In July of 2003 The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), published a survey of victims of this crime, it studies not only areas that have been previously explored by the FTC, GAO and other consumer groups, but also quantifies areas that have never been tested. The study highlights include:
o Fraudulent charges now average more than $90,000 per name used.
o Nearly 85% of all victims find out about their identity theft case in a negative manner. Only 15% of victims find out due to a proactive action taken by a business.
o The average time spent by victims is about 600 hours, an increase of more than 247% over previous studies.
o The emotional impact of identity theft has been found to parallel that of victims of violent crime.
o The responsiveness toward victims by the various entities with which they must interact, continues to be lacking in sensitivity in most cases and has not improved since studies released in 2000 (Nowhere to Turn).
There are five types of Identity Theft: Financial (which accounts for only 27% of all Id Theft), Criminal, Medical, Social Security and Drivers License. Identity thieves take advantage of a system that is basically flawed. Credit applications can be submitted by Internet, telephone or in person. According to law enforcement, the average arrest rate is under 5% of all reported cases. This primarily is due to the fact identity theft frequently crosses jurisdictional boundaries, with crimes often happening outside the city or county were the victim lives. Where does the victim report those crimes under these circumstances? When was the last time you checked your credit report? Did you check your bank statement from last month or is it still unopened? This is a crime of opportunity and due diligence is the only way to catch it.
Next time you’re in your house of worship, on a bus, at a ballgame, or a movie look at the three people to your left and then the three to your right, chances are one of them is or has been a victim of Identity Theft or knows someone who has. I don’t care how funny you think those Citibank®’s ads are, when someone uses your name and the police come take you out of your house in front of your family and neighbors, you won’t be laughing.
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