Losing Your Identity

Identity thieves are looking for you. They love small business owners and managers because you make such profitable victims. If they catch up with you, they can destroy your personal financial standing — even your business.

These criminals would like to make you their next victim, and national statistics suggest that they have a good chance of doing so. According to the latest government figures, identity theft is now America's fastest-growing crime. More than 10 million Americans fell victim to identity theft in 2003.


Unfortunately, identity theft is an easy crime to commit. Using personal information, the thief assumes your identity, obtains false identification and sets out to purchase huge amounts of merchandise in the name of you or your business. It wasn't you who bought all those products and services — tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars worth — but now it's up to you to prove it. And that job often turns out to be far more difficult than you could ever imagine.

Jan Jacobs, Burlington, Vt, is still struggling to repair the damage caused when her identity was stolen. “My first hint of trouble came in the form of a letter from a credit card company saying that they had been trying to reach me by telephone. It turned out that someone was attempting to open a new credit card in my name. Until then, I had no idea that I had been victimized.”

Jacobs took corrective action immediately. “I called the credit bureaus and asked them to put a fraud alert on my accounts, spent two hours on a consumer hotline trying to find out what to do next and launched myself on what seems to be an endless route of tedious paperwork and phone calls.”

She feels that she's making progress in getting her name cleared, but was discouraged recently when she ran into trouble trying to get a car loan.

John T. Stevens, Jr. provides an even scarier example of the devastation wreaked by identity thieves. Stevens was at his Maryland home on a day he remembers well. The phone rang. When he picked it up, his nightmare began.

The call was from an investigator for NationsBank asking why Stevens was “delinquent” on payments for a $27,000 Jeep Cherokee, bought in Dallas a year earlier.

“I don't have a Jeep Cherokee,” Stevens protested. “And I haven't set foot in Texas in over 30 years.” True, but his name was on the contract, and so was his Social Security number.

Soon thereafter, Stevens and his wife learned that someone had bought four more cars and other items worth more than $113,000 in their names. Their excellent credit had been destroyed. “After a lifetime of integrity,” says Stevens, “I was being essentially accused of embezzlement and treated like a deadbeat.”

It took three years of paper work and $6,000 in legal fees for Stevens to clear up the mess. In the meantime, he was denied a loan to build a vacation home, harassed by debt collectors and forced to pay cash for everything he bought. The crowning blow came when their home was put under surveillance by investigators looking for the missing Jeep.

Other identity theft victims have had their drivers' licenses suspended, been turned down for jobs, even jailed for offenses committed by total strangers.


The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that many victims don't discover their plight for more than a year — some for as long as five years.

Jeanine Guilfoyle of Bergen County, N.J., became a victim of identity theft nearly two years ago. She says she will never forget the experience.

“I received letters from several department stores. When I opened them, I found new credit cards with my name on them that I had not applied for. When I called to cancel the cards, I was told they had already been maxed out. Apparently the thieves applied for ‘instant credit’ at the stores and immediately spent the limit.

Guilfoyle says that she is still paying the price for her identity theft. “I had to call each of the stores' credit departments, call the credit bureaus, get a new driver's license and contact Social Security. It took months of paperwork, phone calls and correspondence. I finally got things straightened out, but not before I was stressed to the point that I broke down.”

How can this happen? How can a criminal you have probably never met assume your identity and cause you so much grief?

The magic key that allows a thief to open the door to your life is probably somewhere in your purse or wallet right now: your Social Security number.

Of all the tools coveted by identity thieves (driver's licenses, credit cards, etc.), your Social Security number is the most sought-after prize. It's astonishingly simple to steal a person's identity starting with nothing more than those nine digits. With that information, the thief can easily apply for and obtain credit cards and driver's licenses in the victim's name.


The FTC offers these tips:

  • Give your Social Security number only when legally necessary. Some experts suggest that you refuse to divulge your Social Security number to anyone other than government agencies and companies such as banks, brokerage houses and employers. (These companies are required to report their dealings with you to the federal government and must have your Social Security number to comply.)

  • Before revealing personal identifying information to anyone, find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others.

  • Pay close attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if bills do not arrive on time.

  • Minimize the identification information and the number of credit cards you carry to what you actually need.

  • Order a copy of your credit report from the three credit reporting agencies every year. Make sure they are accurate and include only those activities you've authorized.

  • Keep items with personal information in a safe place. Tear them up or shred them when you don't need them anymore. Make sure charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards and credit offers you get in the mail are disposed of appropriately.


Here's a little trick that will make life a bit easier if you ever find that your identity has been stolen: Take everything containing personal information out of your wallet or purse — driver's license, credit cards, everything.

Then make a photocopy of both sides of each item. Put the copies away in a secure place and you'll have phone numbers and addresses of the people and agencies that you need to notify in the event of trouble.

Modern technology, the Internet and our ability to gather and store huge amounts of personal data on individuals have all contributed to the evolution of identity theft.

Watch out for e-mails designed to look like messages from legitimate companies and government agencies. These messages often provide direct links to Web sites that have been expertly designed to look like legitimate company sites.

Using a ploy such as “updating our records,” e-mail predators usually ask for sensitive information such as Social Security number, credit card numbers, even mother's maiden name. No legitimate company or agency will ever ask you to send that kind of personal information to them in an e-mail. If you respond to such a request, you almost surely will be targeted as an identity theft victim. The best solution: hit the delete key, call the company directly or forward the message to the FTC.

Perhaps the same kind of technology that has helped to make identity theft a major national problem will eventually help us to find a solution.

In the meantime, take the most important step needed to keep you out of that kind of trouble. Get in the habit of protecting your Social Security number and other personal information as if your financial life depends on it. It does.

William Lynott is a freelance journalist and resides in Abington, Pa.


  • If you learn that your identity has been stolen, you must act quickly. Start by calling the police and asking for a crime report. You'll need that to attach to letters you'll send to banks and credit card issuers.

  • File a complaint with the FTC by contacting their Identity Theft Hotline, by telephone: toll-free 1-877-438-4338, or by mail: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580. For online help, log on to www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

  • Contact the fraud departments of one of the three major credit bureaus and report that your identity has been stolen (It's no longer necessary to call all three). Ask them to place a “fraud alert” on your file.

  • Contact the security departments of any creditors or financial institutions where your accounts may have been compromised. Close those accounts and apply for new ones. Put passwords (not your mother's maiden name) on any new accounts you open.

  • You may want to run a background check on yourself, since crimes committed in your name will wreak havoc on your credit standing. You can run a check on yourself at www.PrivacyScan.com for $40.


Equifax Experian Trans Union
Address P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374
P.O. Box 2104
Allen, TX 75013
760 Sproul Road
P.O. Box 390
Springfield, PA 19064
Order Credit Report 1-800-685-1111 1-888-397-3742 1-800-916-8800
Report Fraud 1-800-525-6285 1-888-397-3742 1-800-680-7289

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