December 22, 2004 | By: Ellen Brightwell

"Shoulder surfing" and "dumpster diving" are not new sports activities. They are some easy ways criminals can assume your identity. 

Identity theft is a serious crime that annually affects more than 700,000 Americans each year, according to the U.S. Attorney General. Some estimates are that one in five families is affected. Consumers spend many months, sometime years, and thousands of dollars to correct the mess of their good names and credit records. Meanwhile, victims may lose job opportunities, be denied loans for cars, housing or education, and possibly arrested for crimes they did not commit.

It annually costs U.S. companies more than $50 billion.

"Identity theft occurs when someone uses your name, Social Security or credit card number, or other personal information without your permission to commit fraud or other crimes," said Bob Flashman, Extension specialist in family resource management with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "By taking over your identity, someone can commit a wide range of crimes including false loan and credit-card applications, fraudulent bank account withdrawals, or deceptive telephone calling card use.”

He said "shoulder surfing" occurs in public places when criminals watch from a nearby location as people punch a credit-card number or listen as it is given over the telephone for a rental car or hotel reservation. Near home or office, criminals may go through garbage cans or communal dumpsters to get copies of checks, credit card or bank statements and other personal records that make it easy to assume your identity and gain control over accounts in your name.

"Some criminals send unsolicited e-mail requiring you to give identifying data to gain a promised benefit," Flashman said. "This type of scam is known as 'phishing.' Until recently, criminals pretended to represent banks and other financial services firms. However, a new twist is on-line gift cards that supposedly come from major retailers, but they are just scams to obtain personal information to use in identity fraud."

Criminals also have used computer technology to obtain personal data.

So how can you protect yourself from identity theft?

Flashman gave this advice, using the word "scam" as a reminder. Be "stingy" about giving personal information to other people unless you completely trust them; regularly "check" your financial information both for what should and should not be there; periodically "ask" for a copy of your credit report; and "maintain" careful records of your banking and financial accounts.

Adopt a 'need to know' approach to personal data. Remember, the more information printed on your bank checks, the more personal data you routinely give out. Avoid giving out personal financial information from a telephone in a public place. Instead, wait until you are in a more private location to make the telephone call.

If you are not receiving monthly statements for known bank or credit card accounts, immediately call to find out why. If the statements are being mailed to another address that you did not authorize, immediately tell the financial institution or credit card representative that you did not authorize the new address and that someone may be improperly using your account. 

Also, carefully check monthly statements to be sure there are no unauthorized withdrawals or charges.

Put passwords on credit card, bank, telephone and other personal accounts. Avoid using information that is easily available, such as your mother's maiden name, last four digits of your Social Security number and your birth date. Instead, use a combination of numbers, letters and symbols.

Annually order a report from each of the three main credit-reporting bureaus. This information should list all bank and financial accounts in your name and provide other indications if someone has wrongly opened or used these accounts. Immediately close any tampered accounts.

Credit-reporting bureaus, their Web sites and toll-free telephone numbers are: Equifax,, 800-685-1111; Experian,, 888-397-3742; TransUnion,, 800-8884213.

Maintain careful records of banking and financial accounts. Retain monthly statements and checks for a minimum of one year. Original records are more immediately accessible and useful.

Flashman offered these words of advice: "There is not such thing as a free lunch or something for nothing."


Writer: Ellen Brightwell 859-257-4736, ext. 257
Source: Bob Flashman 859-257-7753