GREENEVILLE, TN – Stephen Wilson was lucky. As chief financial officer at Takoma Adventist Hospital, Wilson has a keen eye for financial figures.
So when he got an unexpected phone message from his bank, he was a little suspicious. He immediately called to inquire about his account balance, and discovered a recent large withdrawal – one he didn’t authorize.
He later learned that the initial phone call from the bank was about something unrelated. “But I give credit to God for that first phone call,” Wilson, a deeply religious man, said. “I think God was trying to tip me off to this other situation.”
After an investigation by the bank’s security department, Wilson learned that someone had set up online banking in his name with his account. “Two days later, a company called Icegold made the large withdrawal, and continued to tap into my account, as well as two or three other companies we’ve never heard of.”
The bank was able to put a block on Wilson’s account, allowing only those outstanding checks he had authorized. “Once all of my checks have cleared, we will close that account,” Wilson explained. “In the meantime, I have opened a new account.”
He also had to file a police report, and sign an affidavit with the bank so they would refund the money illegally withdrawn from his account.
Although quick action by Wilson and the bank may have thwarted future costly withdrawals, Wilson wonders if the thief or thieves might also be applying for unauthorized credit accounts using his identity. “It might be months or years before I know the extent of the violation,” Wilson said.
Since becoming a victim of identity theft, Wilson has boned up on the federal offense. He has learned a lot of staggering statistics, such as that the national average loss is $800 per victim, that it takes on average two years to clear the incident, and that less than 1 out of 700 of these crimes leads to a conviction. “Thieves get away with approximately $53 billion a year,” Wilson said. “The scary part is that there is nothing you can do to guarantee it won’t happen to you, but there are some things you can do to minimize the risk.”
Recent statistics show that one out of six people report having had someone use their personal information without permission, Wilson said. “So the odds are really good that it will happen to you or someone you know,” he said.
Wilson offers these simple safeguards to help prevent identity theft and fraud:
· Be stingy with information. Think twice before releasing personal information to anyone unless you initiated the transaction. Never release personal information over the telephone or on the Internet if it is unsolicited. “All a criminal needs is your full name, social security number and date of birth,” Wilson warns.
· Pay attention. Carefully review all of your bank statements and credit accounts each month. Keep all of your credit card receipts, so they can be reconciled with your monthly statements. Report problems immediately.
· Just say no. Shred preapproved credit offers before throwing away. Opt out of pre-approved credit offers by calling the Credit Reporting Industry Pre-Screening Opt-Out Number at 888-567-8688.
· Guard your mail. Consider using a locked mailbox or slot to receive mail at home. Deposit mail in the post office to discourage mail theft.
· Be choosy. Use only reputable Automated Teller Machines (ATMs). Private automated teller machines may be rigged to skim data off your card’s magnetic strip.
· Do your homework. Order a credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies at least once a year. They are: Equifax, 800-685-1111; TransUnion, 800-888-4213; and Experian, 888-397-3742. Review carefully, and get bogus information purged immediately. “Most people don’t learn of the crime for a year or more after it happened,” Wilson said. “The more time that has elapsed, the harder it is to correct it.”
· Be prepared. Photocopy all credit card, investment and bank account information.
· Use your head. When creating passwords or personal identification numbers (PINs), don’t use your mother’s maiden name, the last four digits of your social security number, your birthdate, your middle name, your pet’s name, or consecutive numbers. Add a second password to your bank account.
Despite these preventive efforts, what if you’re still a victim of fraud? Close all accounts that have been compromised, and follow up in writing with copies of supporting documents. Select new passwords for new accounts.
For fraudulent charges on existing accounts, fill out a fraud-dispute form.
For new, unauthorized accounts, download the Federal Trade Commission’s ID Theft affidavit (www.consumer.gov/idtheft) to help you notify merchants, financial institutions and credit bureaus.
For fraud involving stolen mail, also file a complaint with postal officials at www.usps.com/postalinspectors/fraud/MailFraudComplaint.htm.
Place a fraud alert on your credit reports by calling Equifax, TransUnion or Experian.
Also, file a report with the local police department or the police in the town where your ID was stolen. Get a copy of the report – or the report number – to provide to creditors who want proof of the crime.
And, finally, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
“It takes a lot of work to straighten this out,” Wilson admits. “But what choice do you have.”