Every afternoon in large and small communities all over Kentucky, homeowners raise stiff red flags on the side of their mailboxes to signal mail carriers that they have packages, bills, and birthday cards to send.
U.S. Postal Inspector Linda Jensen calls them “steal-me flags.”
Thieves, she says, are swiping the personal information from the sealed mail inside unlocked mailboxes and using it to open credit card accounts, cash checks, and pretend to be the people whose Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, birth dates, and mothers’ maiden names they took from those unprotected mailboxes.
Identity thieves may be drug addicts, members of organized groups, and even family members of their victims.
In 2001, the Federal Trade Commission estimates, 484 Kentuckians were victims of identity theft, mostly at the hands of strangers who opened credit card accounts in the victim’s name. Across the country, 86,168 people reported the crime; Kentucky ranks 30th among all states for the number of reported identity theft cases.
The number of actual identity thefts is probably much higher, says Linda Vizi, an agent in the FBI’s Philadelphia office.
“The numbers are hard to come by,” she says, because the federal government uses both mail and wire fraud laws to prosecute identity thieves.
Besides, she says, many victims fail to report the crime, opting to sort it out on their own or even protect the thief, who often turns out to be a friend, roommate, or even a parent or sibling.
Yet it takes hours to untangle the mess and sometimes months before a thief’s victims even realize they have been stung.
What began as an urban crime has made its way to rural communities, where unguarded mail, large populations of the elderly, and growing access to the Internet have made small towns fertile hunting ground for identity thieves.
“The crime is leaving the big cities and moving out to the rural areas because it is harder to steal mail from locked apartment complexes that may have light all the time,” says Inspector Mike McCarthy of U.S. Postal Inspection Office headquarters in the Los Angeles division.
“Identity theft is an equal-opportunity crime,” agrees Robert Goeller, vice president of card services for the Farm Bureau Bank. Cities may report more victims because they house more people, he says, but in rural areas, the prey are disproportionately elderly.
Identity thieves collect personal information not only from mailboxes, but over the telephone.
Goeller says, “The elderly have always been a target for telephone crime.”
Key to an identity thief’s success is tricking someone into revealing a Social Security or bank account number. Goeller advises Kentuckians to refuse to part with that information over the telephone or on the Internet. Carmen Ross, a public affairs specialist with the Social Security Administration, agrees.
“The biggest thing we can ask is for people to not carry their Social Security cards with them in their bags,” she says.
The rural elderly, she says, can be easy targets for a ruthless thief.
“In a rural setting, people know who has benefits,” she says, so thieves go after them, stealing their identification numbers so they can convince the Social Security office to reroute their monthly checks to a different address.
Still, says Claudia Bourne-Farrell, a spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission, she fell victim to identity theft when she was very young after using her driver’s license, which contained her Social Security number, to cash a check. The thief used that number and the name Claudio Farrell to fill out tax forms at his job so Bourne-Farrell would get stuck paying his income tax.
“It was scary,” admits Bourne-Farrell, who says she did not have to pay the taxes but spent hours clearing up the confusion. Now she shreds all of her bank statements and bills and advises others to carry as little personal information—including credit cards—as they can.
Once a thief has personal and financial information about someone, says Les Seagraves, chief privacy officer for Internet service provider EarthLink, it’s fairly simple to use it on the Internet to order and pay for merchandise and services.
Bourne-Farrell agrees: “You can get on the Internet and tell someone you’re the queen of Tasmania and no one knows the difference,” she says.
Vizi notes that identity thieves most often open credit card accounts with stolen identities, but they also use the information to sign up for Internet, telephone, and utility service.
Anyone who shops online without taking precautions is vulnerable, notes Seagraves. He advises Web users to shop only on sites with names they recognize. Before typing a credit card number onto an unfamiliar site, he says, the user should call the company’s phone number to verify that it is a legitimate business.
If you can’t find a phone number on the Web site, he urges, “Forget it.”
Eventually, says Vizi, victims of identity theft work out their worries with authorities, and rarely have to pay for purchases made in their name by strangers. Still, she says, it can wreak long-term damage to a victim’s credit reputation, and, “It’s very frustrating for the victims because it takes hours and hours to sort out. They may not know about it for a long time until they want to use their credit for something like to get a loan and are told that their credit is no good.”
Recovering your identity
If you think you are a victim of identity theft, report it! Here are some steps you can take to get your identity back.
• Call the Federal Trade Commission at (877) ID THEFT, your local police, and all of your creditors.
• Get your credit reports from the three major credit reporting companies: Equifax, www.equifax.com, (800) 525-6285; Experian, www.experian.com, (888) 397-3742; and Transunion, www.transunion.com, (800) 680-7289. Have them flag your file for scrutiny.
• Get as much written documentation as you can so you can account for all of the damage.
• Get copies of your police report to mail to creditors to prove the theft.
• Keep your case investigator’s contact information handy in case more fraud surfaces.
• Cancel all cards and accounts. Have your creditors issue new ones with passwords or other safeguards to prevent misuse.
• Order credit reports every six months to be sure the theft is over.
Protecting your identity
Identity thieves, say law enforcement officials, will trick an elderly Social Security recipient out of a monthly stipend, wade through your trash to get your bank account number, or set up a Web page that looks just like your Internet provider’s in order to get you to type in your credit card number.
The best way to protect yourself from such ruthless crooks, they suggest, is to become equally ruthless when it comes to guarding your personal and financial information. Their advice:
• Buy a shredder. They’re inexpensive at discount retailers and office-supply stores. Shred your bills after you pay them, along with credit card receipts and all of those pre-approved credit card offers that arrive in the mail and end up in your garbage.
• Dismantle your charming, end-of-the driveway mailbox with the bright red sentry flag. Replace it with a locked box that has a narrow opening for letters, rent a box at the local post office, deposit your check through direct deposit, or ask your carrier to drop your mail through a slot in your front door.
• Do not carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Memorize your number and leave the card at home.
• Inspect the charges on your monthly credit card statements to make sure they are yours. If they are not, dispute them. Do not pay them.
• Refuse to tell your Social Security number, bank or credit card account numbers, birth date, or mother’s maiden name to anyone who calls on the phone asking to verify that information—even if the person says they are calling from the bank.