Even scarier is that this, the largest identity-theft bust to date, is just a drop in the bit bucket. More than 700,000 Americans have their credit hijacked every year. It's one of crime's biggest growth markets. A name, address and Social Security number which can often be found on the Web is all anybody needs to apply for a bogus line of credit. Credit companies make $1.3 trillion annually and lose less than 2% of that revenue to fraud, so there's little financial incentive for them to make the application process more secure. As it stands now, it's up to you to protect your identity.
The good news is that there are plenty of steps you can take. Most credit thieves are opportunists, not well-organized gangs. A lot of them go dumpster diving for those millions of "pre-approved" credit-card mailings that go out every day. Others steal wallets and return them, taking only a Social Security number. Shredding your junk mail and leaving your Social Security card at home can save a lot of agony later.
But the most effective way to keep your identity clean is to check your credit reports once or twice a year. There are three major credit-report outfits: Equifax (at equifax.com), Trans-Union (www.transunion.com) and Experian (experian.com). All allow you to order reports online, which is a lot better than wading through voice-mail hell on their 800 lines. Of the three, I found TransUnion's website to be the cheapest and most comprehensive laying out state-by-state prices, rights and tips for consumers in easy-to-read fashion.
If you're lucky enough to live in Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey or Vermont, you are entitled to one free report a year by law. Otherwise it's going to cost $8 to $14 each time. Avoid services that offer to monitor your reports year-round for about $70; that's $10 more than the going rate among thieves.
If you think you're a victim of identity theft, you can ask for fraud alerts to be put on file at each of the three credit-report companies. You can also download a theft-report form at www.consumer.gov/idtheft, which, along with a local police report, should help when irate creditors come knocking. Just don't expect justice. That audacious help-desk worker was one of the fewer than 2% of identity thieves who are ever caught.
Questions? You can e-mail Chris at email@example.com