Identity Theft Hits Firms Consumers

March 14, 2005
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LANSING — It's one thing to lose retirement funds in an investment account because of a bear market.

It's a whole other matter to lose those much-counted-on dollars to a barely-out-of-high-school hacker in Tucson who wants a set of new raised radials for his SUV.

Yet, the latter scenario is becoming more and more common.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said his office received 102,400 complaints from consumers last year. On his Top10 list of consumer protection issues, identity theft played a role in seven of the most-reported complaints — a new record.

Cox said ID theft has become such a serious problem over the past few years that he now calls it an "invisible mugging."

"Ten years ago, none of us would have heard of this crime because it has grown like a virus, sort of riding the wave of the information technology boom," he said.

The Federal Trade Commission estimated that ID thieves stole $53 billion in 2003. About $5 billion was bilked from consumers, while $48 billion was heisted from businesses.

In his visits with bankers across the state, Cox said they've told him that more of the bad debt they write off each year has come from identity theft. And in most of those instances, lenders said they hadn't learned that ID theft was behind a problem until months after the debt has been written off.

Cox said that's because this crime takes longer to track and is harder to crack. He stressed that individuals and businesses need to know how to prevent someone from hijacking their funds.

Toward reaching that goal, Cox pointed to the prevention initiative that he has actively promoted for the last 14 months. Called "It's MI Identity," its objective is to educate residents so more can prevent their identities from being stolen.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded the state's campaign a $600,000 grant, in part to help consumers most likely to become a victim: those aged 50 and over.

"We've been traveling the state checking credit histories. We have a target of 4,000 seniors, and we want to teach people how they can defend themselves," he said.

"People over 50 constitute about 40 percent of the victims in Michigan and that is part of why we started with the group we did. But quite frankly, we're all at risk."

Those HHS dollars are also being used to help train law enforcement officials on how to better deal with identity theft. Businesses and major institutions, like hospitals, are also being called on with ideas on how they can protect their clients.

"Ultimately, what we have to do is get consumers better educated, get businesses better educated, and they will be more empowered to deal with the challenges itself," said Cox.

Details on the attorney general's campaign are available at www.michigan.gov/ag

One way Cox said investors could prevent their identities from being swiped was to access the free credit reports that became available on March 1 through the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act.

The federal law lets each consumer collect one personal credit report without charge per year from the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. One may order reports by mail, telephone or online. Of the three, Cox felt calling the 800 number to order one was the most secure method.

"But really, I think it's just a matter of personal comfort," he said of the method chosen.

Investors can request a copy of their credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com, by calling (800) 322-8228, or by getting a request form from www.ftc.gov/credit and mailing it to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

Cox has a consumer alert on the credit reports available from his Web site, which has advice on how to request a report. Other questions that an investor may have can likely be answered at www.annualcreditreport.com

Cox said it was important for consumers to get those reports, as a credit update can help minimize the damage that comes with being a victim of identity theft.

"If someone sees a bad entry on their credit report, they can confront that debtor right away. Often IDs are stolen, but aren't used right away. Sometimes there is a trial use to see if it's contested.

"If it's not, then there is a full-blown use, depending on how sophisticated the thief is," he said.

Reports from all three credit-reporting agencies can be requested at one time, or one report from each can be requested three times over the course of a year.

Cox said ordering a report from one of the three agencies every four months offers more protection from identity theft than requesting all three at once.

"The catch phrase that we've used from the beginning is that ID theft is like an invisible mugging. You're mugged, you get stuff stolen from you, and you don't realize it because you don't see it," he said.

"Well, getting a credit report is one way to help see it."    

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