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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Texans need to protect their personally identifying information

Texans need to protect their personally identifying information, watch for
signs of fraud.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, Texas ranks second in the nation
for identity theft complaints, so Texans should carefully guard their
identities and credit ratings. In 2008, nearly 32,000 Texans were identity
theft victims and as a result, lost thousands of dollars and hours of time
attempting to correct their credit ratings and personal financial history.

Identity theft is a crime that occurs when a criminal illegally uses
someone else’s personal information – whether it’s another’s name, address,
driver’s license number, Social Security number, credit card number – to
commit fraud or other crimes. Sometimes identity theft is detected quickly,
but other times it may take years before it surfaces. As a result, a victim
may not recognize the theft until his or her credit has been destroyed. No
one, including children, is immune to this crime.

The average victim loss runs into hundreds of dollars, with victims forced
to spend hours cleaning up the damage. But the worst cases can cost
thousands of dollars and take years to fully repair. To help prevent
identity theft, the OAG conducts public education efforts and pursues
vendors that fail to protect their customers’ personal information.

Identity thieves obtain their victims’ personal information in several
ways. Here are just a few:

• Dumpster diving. Thieves retrieve bills and other documents out of the
trash. Although Texas law prohibits vendors from simply throwing away
documents that contain their customers’ sensitive information, when a store
or office makes a mistake, identity thieves can recover large caches of
personal information from publicly accessible dumpsters. To prevent thieves
from obtaining usable personal information from the trash, Texans should
use a cross-cut shredder to destroy financial documents and paperwork with
personal information.
• Skimming. Some identity thieves use an economical storage device to copy
credit/debit card numbers when credit cards are processed by vendors.
Texans can avoid falling victim to this tactic by keeping an eye on their
credit card statements.
• Phishing. Thieves pretending to be financial institutions or online
retailers often send official-looking e-mails in an attempt to trick
Internet users into revealing their personal information. Texans can avoid
falling victim to this tactic by refusing to provide their passwords or
sensitive information (personal or account details) through e-mail or in
response to unsolicited phone calls.
• Pretexting. Like phishing, this scheme employs false pretenses to obtain
personal information from financial institutions, telephone companies, and
other sources. Texans can avoid falling victim to this tactic by refusing
to provide their passwords or sensitive information (personal or account
details) through e-mail or in response to unsolicited phone calls.
• Phony job offers. Identity thieves place fake employment ads and ask
respondents to fill out applications that include their personal
information. Texans can avoid falling victim to this tactic by researching
a company before providing any personal information. Job applicants should
only apply at a reputable business’s known physical location or Web site.
• Change of address. Identity thieves use change of address forms to divert
a consumer’s mail to another location by completing a change-of-address
form. The U.S. Postal Service now sends a “Move Validation Letter” to both
an old and new address when a change of address is filed. If Texans receive
one of these letters but did not apply for a change of address, they should
call their post office immediately.
• Regular stealing. By stealing items like wallets, PDAs, laptops, purses,
new checks, tax information or personnel records, identity thieves can have
access to the personal information they need to commit identity theft.
Texans can avoid falling victim to identity theft by guarding these
sensitive records with care, and only carrying those records that they
need. If records are lost or stolen, Texans should cancel the lost or
stolen credit cards and alert their banks.
• Shoulder surfing. By literally looking over a victim’s shoulder, identity
thieves can obtain personal information, such as at an ATM, for example.
Texans can avoid to this tactic by being aware of their surroundings and
carefully concealing personal information and PIN numbers.
• Hacking. Hackers gain information by breaking into computer systems.
Texans can avoid hackers by using anti-virus software, firewalls and other
methods to keep your computer secure. Texans should keep all such software
updated to ensure they receive the latest protections.
• Working in your home. Residential contractors or other workers may misuse
personal information they find in plain view. Texans can avoid this tactic
by keeping sensitive documents in a secure place and limit unsupervised
unknown workers in their homes.

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