By California Attorney General Bill Lockyer
Despite historic lows in violent crime rates, Californians today are more at risk than ever of becoming a victim of crime. The fastest growing crime wave in our state and America today is the crime of identity theft. An estimated 750,000 Americans per year are victims of identity theft schemes, up from 40,000 in 1992 - an 18-fold increase.
What makes identity theft so devastating is the ease with which criminals can perpetrate the offense and the enormous damage that can be inflicted upon its victims. Thieves can steal wallets, snatch your mail with your bank and credit card statements, complete a "change of address form" to divert your mail to another location, "dumpster dive" for personal data and access personal information you share on the Internet. Once in possession of your identifying details, scam artists can use your credit card or open up a new account. They can drain your bank account, establish phone or wireless service, file for bankruptcy, counterfeit checks or debit cards and take out loans - all in your name. For victims, the trauma and hassle associated with restoring your credit, clearing your name or, in some cases, escaping criminal prosecution can take an average of two years to complete.
My office is coordinating the work of five regional Hi-Tech Task Forces throughout the state to investigate and prosecute identity theft. We are also developing new Identity Theft prosecution units to work with these task forces. But, the single most effective way to fight identity theft is for you to prevent criminals from accessing your personal information.
Taking the following steps will help protect you against identity theft:
Never give out your Social Security number, except when absolutely necessary, such as to your employer.
Do not give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or know the individual or organization.
Before giving personal data to a company, ask how the information will be used, whether it will be transferred to third parties (mailing lists) and if you can keep your information confidential.
If your bills don't arrive on time, follow up with creditors. An identity thief may have taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address.
Review bank and credit card statements each month for fraudulent activity. If anything is amiss, immediately report the problem to your bank or credit card company.
Periodically order your credit report from the three major credit reporting agencies and check for accuracy.
Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office. Do not leave mail in your personal mail box.
Put passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts.
Buy a shredder, and use it.
If you should become a victim of identity theft, contact law enforcement and complete a crime report. Report the theft to the three major credit reporting agencies, and ask that your accounts be flagged. Contact all creditors with whom your name has been used fraudulently - by phone and in writing. Document and date all your efforts. Continue to check your credit card bills and credit reports. You should also contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at 1-877-IDTHEFT to file a complaint. If you are wrongfully prosecuted for criminal charges due to identity theft, contact the California Department of Justice and the FBI and obtain information on how to clear your name. For civil charges, contact the court where the judgment was entered.
For additional information on how to protect yourself from identity theft, visit our Web site at www.ag.ca.gov or contact the FTC, 600 PennsylvaniaAvenue, NW, Washington DC 20580 or at www.ftc.gov.