07-30-2009 @ 4:15 am

Identity Theft: A Victim’s Advice

“Be aware.”

This two-word phrase is the simple yet wise crux of Maria Neary’s advice on how to avoid becoming a victim of the fastest growing crime in America:  identity theft.

Mark and Stan recently had the privilege of hearing Neary, Managing Director of Geller Family Office Services, LLC in New York, speak on the subject of identity theft. Her presentation delineated and expanded on the FTC’s three-pronged approach to dealing with the dangers of living in the information age, an approach the FTC terms “Deter, Detect, and Defend.” Mark and Stan were impressed with her authority on the subject not only as someone whose job requires handling sensitive client information but also as someone who has experienced identity theft firsthand.

“My wallet was stolen. I was in a restaurant, and somebody must have stuck their hand in my bag when I wasn’t looking,” Neary recounts how her identity was compromised. “By the time I realized my wallet was gone—which was maybe two hours later—they were already charging up my credit cards.”

Unfortunately, those charges weren’t the end of Neary’s troubles. “The scary part was, about six months later, I got an invoice in the mail from Sears for ‘my’ new credit card with thousands of dollars worth of electronics charged to it,” Neary says.

Now, six years later at a time when the FTC estimates that the number of people who have their identities stolen every year has risen to 9,000,000, Neary emphatically preaches awareness as the key to securing one’s identity.

“Always thinking, ‘What could somebody do with this information?’ is really the best way to avoid identity theft,” Neary says. All of the preventive methods Neary suggests, from always shredding documents containing personal information to making sure the insurance card in one’s wallet does not display a social security number, stem from such an overall mindset of careful cognizance.

And, of course, a crucial aspect of awareness is the adoption of practices that will facilitate quick detection if, for some reason, your identity should be compromised. Neary makes the following helpful suggestions for how to be on alert in order to limit the consequences of identity theft:

  • Reconcile bank accounts and follow up on anything unusual on a timely basis.
  • Subscribe to a credit monitoring service and review credit reports.
  • Keep track of billing cycles and investigate any missing invoices.
  • Be alert for any unexpected credit card statements received or transactions.
  • Be aware of denial of credit for no reason.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having your identity stolen, Neary also suggests taking the following proactive steps to defend yourself from losses:

  • File a police report/identity theft report.
  • Contact the FTC to report the situation at 877-IDTHEFT.
  • Alert the fraud units of all three principal credit reporting companies.
  • Dispute any unauthorized transactions.
  • Alert any and all creditors and financial institutions involved. You will probably need to close accounts and open new ones.
  • If you suspect a social security number is being fraudulently used, contact the Social Security Administration ASAP.

 “You want as little information out there as possible,” Neary says, summarizing the necessary approach to living in today’s world of high-speed communication. As Neary’s experience shows us, the consequences of living in the information age are not always positive. Still, Neary also shows us that there are ways to avoid falling prey to the misuse of information. To that end, we would all do well to adopt her sensible mantra: “Be aware.”

For more information on identity theft and how to defend yourself against it, visit the FTC’s identity theft website at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/.

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