Losing Your Identity

October 13, 2003

Leah Oden first suspected something was wrong when a credit card company called to verify her address. Although she hadn't applied for a card, someone else had used her name and Social Security and driver's license numbers to do so. 
Oden, BSN '95, was the victim of an identify thief, described by the Federal Trade Commission as someone who "co-opts your personal information and appropriates it without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft." She's not alone -- the government reports identity theft as one of the fastest-growing consumer crimes of the last decade. 
Identity thieves obtain personal information in a variety of ways. They may steal your wallet or intercept bank, credit card and insurance statements from the mail. Information also can be stolen from files in business, school or medical offices, according to FTC materials. 
The way we transact our routine business provides opportunities for identity theft, says Dr. Randy Vaughn, professor of information systems in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business. "When we purchase something in a store, we often give our name, driver's license, address or credit card number. Whenever we give out any personal information, we make ourselves vulnerable if that information should fall into the wrong hands."
Our use of technology can put us at risk as well. Personal information stored on home computers can be accessed either when thieves hack directly into the system or by viruses programmed to search for and send information. Also, online banking without electronic safeguards can put financial records at risk, Dr. Vaughn says. 
Oden says she doesn't know how her identity was stolen. "I've never had my wallet stolen, and I didn't have a personal Internet account at the time." 
Once thieves have your information, they can obtain credit cards, open bank accounts and procure cell phones and other services. Because these transactions occur using your name and identifying information, it appears as though you're the one running up the charges.
The person who stole Oden's identity charged $8,000 in her name, and although ultimately she was not responsible for the charges, it took months for her to straighten out her credit record. Other victims may be denied a mortgage or student loan because of a bad credit report. 
To avoid becoming a victim, Dr. Vaughn advises using caution when giving out personal information, especially over the phone. Ask why your Social Security number is needed and try to verify how your information will be used. He suggests changing personal identification numbers regularly and using care when discarding pre-approved credit card offers, which, when tossed in the trash or recycling bin, are a tempting target for identity thieves. To stop getting these offers, call toll free 888-5-OPTOUT. For other recommendations, see the sidebar at right or log onto the government's consumer Web site at www.consumer.gov. 
If you think you've been the victim of identify theft, contact the FTC's Identity Theft Hot Line toll free at 1-877-IDTHEFT or online at www.ftc.gov. Counselors will record your complaint and provide helpful information, including how to dispute fraudulent charges and deal with credit problems.

Protect yourself

The Federal Trade Commission recommends the following steps to reduce the risk of identify theft:
• Order a copy of your credit report annually from the three major credit bureaus to make sure only transactions that you have authorized are a part of your financial history. Contact Equifax at www.equifax.com, Experian at www.experian.com or Transunion at www.transunion.com.
• Be wary about giving out personal information over the phone or Internet, and be sure to conduct Internet transactions using a secure browser.
• Guard your Social Security number. If you live in a state that uses the SSN for driver's licenses, request that another number be used. Don't put your SSN on checks, and leave your card in a secure place at home rather than in your wallet or purse where it might be stolen. 
• When making up passwords for credit cards, ATM machines or computer sites, avoid using your mother's maiden name, your birth date or the last four digits of your SSN.
• Use virus protection and a firewall program to make it harder for others to access personal information stored on your computer. 
• Do not store financial information on a laptop. If you do, use a password with a combination of letters and numbers and avoid using the automatic log-in feature. These steps will make it harder for someone to access your financial information if your laptop is stolen.
• Tear or shred receipts, bank statements and credit card offers before discarding them in the trash or recycling.
• Don't deposit or have mail delivered to an unsecured box.
Source: "When Bad Things Happen to Your Good Name," a publication of the Federal Trade Commission, available at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

Beal is a lecturer in Baylor's Louise Herrington School of Nursing, where she teaches "The Experience of Illness." She received her BS from Columbia University and her MN from Emory. She is a freelance health and medical writer.