Holiday Shoppers Beware! Criminals are Targeting Your Identity

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I.I.I. Offers Crime Prevention and Insurance Tips

New York, Nov. 21, 2003 – The holiday shopping season is heating up and according to a new survey conducted by the National Retail Federation sales are expected to increase this year by almost 6%. That’s good news for retailers; but the increased spending unfortunately provides more opportunities for identity theft.

“The malls are busy and crowded during the holidays and it’s a perfect environment for thieves bent on stealing your credit cards or other financial information,” says Jeanne M. Salvatore, vice president, Consumer Affairs, Insurance Information Institute. “Shoppers need to be especially careful over the holidays by guarding their credit cards, phone cards, drivers licenses and social security numbers.”

Identity theft is on the rise. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) there were 10 million victims in 2002, and the numbers are expected to increase in 2003. Thieves steal personal information and use it to impersonate a victim. Thieves use this information to steal from bank accounts, establish phony insurance policies, open unauthorized credit cards, or obtain unauthorized bank loans. However, most criminals use the stolen information to make purchases, says the FTC, with more than 6.5 million victims reporting that their existing credit card accounts were misused.

Victims of identity theft are often left with lower credit scores, and must spend months or even years getting credit records corrected. They often have difficulty getting credit, obtaining loans, and even getting hired. According to the Privacy Rights Clearing House, the average identity theft victim spends 175 hours to restore their identity. Losses to credit cards generally average $18,000, but victims are generally only liable for the first $50 dollars.

The financial services industry and the federal and state governments are trying to help make recovery easier, but the best course is never to go through it at all. To protect your hard earned money this holiday season, the I.I.I. suggests you:

  • Limit the amount of personal information in your purse or wallet to the bare minimum. Avoid carrying additional credit cards, social security cards or passport unless absolutely necessary.

  • When making purchases, guard your card. Shield your hand when using ATM machines or making long distance phone calls with phone cards. You don’t want to fall prey to “shoulder surfers” who may be nearby.

  • Always take credit card or ATM receipts. Don’t throw them into public trash containers, leave them on the counter or put them in your shopping bag where they can easily fall out or get stolen.

  • If you plan to do your shopping online, make sure that you are buying from a reputable retailer with a secure network.

  • Don’t rely on your credit card company or bank to alert you of suspicious activity. Carefully monitor your bank and credit card statements to make sure all of the transactions are accurate.

  • Tear or shred any documents that have personal information such as a credit card or bank statement, charge receipts, or credit card applications.

If you are the victim of a crime, report it to the store and police immediately. This will help apprehend the criminal by tracking crime patterns. Ask for a police report. This will help you if you decide to file an insurance claim or want to report the crime to the FTC for their assistance.

Victims of identity fraud can contact the FTC at 877-IDTHEFT or http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft .

Protecting your credit history is very important, since this information is used by insurers, employers and others, according to the I.I.I. At least once a year, contact the major credit reporting agencies to review your file. The three major credit bureaus are: Equifax http://www.equifax.com , TransUnion http://www.transunion.com and Experian http://www.experian.com .

Theft of personal possessions is generally covered by homeowners and renters insurance policies. Consumers may also consider obtaining identity theft insurance. It provides reimbursement to crime victims for the cost of restoring their identity and repairing credit reports. Some companies now include it as part of their homeowners insurance policy. Others sell it as either a stand alone policy or as an endorsement to a homeowners or renters insurance policy. On average, these policies cost between $25 and $50 for $15,000 to $25,000 worth of coverage. Identity theft insurance provides reimbursement for expenses such as phone bills, lost wages, notary and certified mailing costs and sometimes attorney fees with the prior consent of the insurer.

If you have any questions regarding insurance, contact your insurance company or representative. For a list of resources regarding identity theft, you can access the I.I.I. website at www.iii.org.

The Insurance Information Institute is non-profit, communications organization supported by the property/casualty insurance business.