April 11, 2008

Identity theft can be a very frightening and time consuming experience for victims, but there are precautions people can take to protect themselves from this crime. Lori Farris, a representative from the Kentucky Attorney General’s office, recently spoke with Anderson County residents about identity theft and prevention methods during a program hosted by the county’s Cooperative Extension Service.

Farris said there are many characteristics that make individuals susceptible to this crime.

“I think a lot of people are not careful,” she said. “They’re very lackadaisical about their money. They don’t maintain their records; they throw things out. They don’t keep their personal information to themselves.”

Debra Parrish, Anderson County family and consumer sciences extension agent, said often identity theft occurs at times when people least expect it, such as while getting gas or shopping for groceries. Many people associate identity theft with people sifting through trash or obtaining information over the Internet, but it can happen anytime and anywhere. Thieves can access personal identifying information about others by stealing purses, wallets or outgoing mail out of mailboxes. Identity thieves can also steal personal information from places that offer customers credit, such as financial institutions and businesses. Dishonest employees can take personal records of others and either use them to commit identity theft or sell them to an identity thief.

“If you’re not careful, you can be a victim of identity theft and not even know it,” she said.

Many people are not aware of the damage identity thieves can do to their credit and finances. Thieves can use the information they obtain from victims to run up credit card bills, apply for new credit cards, get access to bank accounts, apply for loans, write bad checks and many more fraudulent acts.

“What seems like it’s not that big of a deal to start with, when you think about them and what they’ve got access to, it can be a very big deal,” Parrish said.

There are many misconceptions surrounding identity theft. Identity thieves often are not who most people would think. Much of identity theft is committed by someone the victim knows.

Thefts committed by family, friends, neighbors and employees account for 47 percent of all crimes reported, according to a recent study.

“Family members can easily obtain information from a parent’s or grandparent’s home to wrongfully access available credit and loans for themselves. Since family members know a great deal of personal identifying information about each other, this situation is not uncommon,” Farris said.

Information posted on social networking sites also may leave many vulnerable to identity theft. People should think about the information they post on these sites and who may be able to access it. It’s not a good idea to add people you do not know to your friend lists.

“Many people have the skills to go online and look, and with just a couple of clicks they can get personal information,” Farris said.

By improving record keeping skills, being particular with personal information and checking credit bureau reports regularly, people can reduce their chances of becoming a victim of identity theft. When asked for personal identifying information by businesses, it is important for people to ask the business who has access to this personal information, for what purpose this information is being used and how the information will be secured.

“We have to think about how we destroy our records and how we maintain our records,” Farris said. “Do we look at our bank account statements and our credit card statements to check for unauthorized withdrawals and charges? There are a lot of things that we can do to make us less susceptible.”

In addition to maintaining up to date financial records, individuals can also request a free credit report from any of the three credit bureaus. These credit bureaus, TransUnion, Equifax and Experian, are required to provide individuals with one free credit report per year upon request. Farris said ideally, individuals would stagger requests throughout the year so they receive a credit report every four months. Credit reports can be requested here.

For those that fall victim to identity theft, there is hope in restoring your credit, but it will take persistent effort and time. If a person thinks another person is accessing and using their information illegally, they should place a fraud alert on their credit bureau accounts by contacting one of the three credit reporting bureaus. Victims should contact the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office at 1-888-432-9257 to receive an ID Theft Victims Kit, which provides the necessary steps and information to get their credit restored. They also should report the crime to their local law enforcement agency or the Kentucky State Police.

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