Stop Identity Theft!Analyzing Popular Wisdom

The following advice is making the rounds on the Internet in the form of “free” legal advice from a corporate attorney to his employees. It consists of seven hints and tips about avoiding identity theft and credit fraud. Here, we discuss each tip in turn and reveal what experts have to say about them.

1. Instead of signing the back of your credit and debit cards, write, “PHOTO ID REQUIRED” instead. The logic behind this is that merchants will be prompted to ask for a drivers license or other photographic identification before accepting the card. While this sounds logical, and a lot of people have been doing this, VISA, MasterCard and American Express all say that merchants are instructed not to finalize the transaction if there is no signature on the back of the card.

2. When writing a check to pay a credit card bill, never put the complete account number on the “For” line. Instead, write only the last four numbers. The reason cited for doing this is that the credit card company already has your full account number on file, whereas anybody who handles the check as it is being process will not have this information and, therefore, cannot use it for their own benefit. MasterCard, American Express and VISA all advise against this. Write the FULL account number on the check.

3. Have your checks printed with your telephone number at work as your contact number, rather than your home telephone number. Also, use your work address or PO Box instead of your home address and NEVER put your Social Security Number on your checks. Experts agree that you should never put your SSN on your checks. The other advice is fine. However, if you change jobs frequently this could become costly.

4. Make a photocopy of both sides of any identification documents, credit cards, loyalty cards, drivers license, etc., that you keep in your wallet and keep the copy in a safe place. This way, if it is lost or stolen, you will have all the information you need to report the loss/theft and replace the documents all in one place. Experts agree that it is a good idea to do this on a regular basis.

The author of the original piece goes on to mention that he carries a copy of his passport when traveling either at home or abroad. He makes reference to horror stories about people having fraud committed on them by people stealing names, SSNs, addresses and credit cards.

5. He recounts the experience of having had his own wallet stolen recently. Within a week, thieves had obtained a VISA credit card, been approved to purchase a brand-name computer, ordered an expensive mobile telephone package, received a PIN number from his state’s motor vehicle department to change his driving record online, and other fraud.

His advice as a result of this experience is to cancel all cards immediately. This is made a lot easier by keeping a complete list of all toll-free numbers so you know whom to contact to report the loss/theft. Keep the list in a safe place where you know you will find it. Experts are unanimous in their agreement that all card losses should be reported immediately and a police report filed as soon as possible.

6. The author echoes expert advice to report the theft of a wallet containing credit cards, etc. to the police in whose jurisdiction the crime took place. This demonstrates to the card issuers that you have been diligent and is the first step toward having the incident investigated (if, indeed, an investigation does take place).

7. Finally, our benevolent attorney describes what he believes is the most important precaution of all, something he had never before considered. This is to contact the Social Security office and the national credit card reporting organizations and instigate what he describes as a fraud alert. He had not heard of this until a bank telephoned him to let him know that someone had applied over the Internet for credit in his name. Initiating a fraud alert means that any company who checks the information will be informed that your information was stolen and they need to contact you personally in order to extend any new credit.

This was two weeks after the initial theft, by which time the damage had already been done. There were even records of all the credit checks that had been instigated as the result of the thieves attempting to make a purchase using his details. He had been aware of some of these attempts before he initiated the fraud alert. Subsequent to his placing the fraud alert, the thieves discarded the wallet and it was returned to him with no further attempts at fraud.

On the subject of a fraud alert, experts agree that this does have benefits. However, it is not entirely foolproof. Creditors are not legally compelled to inform you before they open a new account or issue credit on your behalf.

Finally, here are some important telephone numbers to keep on hand in the event of a credit card theft.
Equifax: 1-800-525-285
Experian (formerly TRW): 1-888-397-3742
TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289
Social Security Administration (fraud line): 1-800-269-0271

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