Identity Theft: The Consumer's Options
TOM FIELD: What are you seeing as the biggest areas of concern right now regarding identity theft?
BRODER: Well, I think consumers are always concerned about their privacy and running the risk that someone else will get hold of their information and will use it to commit fraud. So, consumers are a little anxious about shopping online if they don't feel secure. They are a little bit nervous about how their Social Security numbers are used and how often they have to provide them. But I think overall they are, a lot of consumers, just very anxious about identity theft. They see it as a big threat.
FIELD: Now, I know the FTC has done a wonderful job in consumer awareness and education. From that perspective, where do you see the greatest awareness of identity theft among consumers? Are there particular groups that are more aware?
BRODER: I think everyone's becoming more aware, and I think what people are learning is that there are threats out there, but there are ways that we can better protect our identity to make it less likely that it can be misused. So, our messages are getting out both through the FTC's website at www.ftc.gov/idtheft and through a lot of outreach opportunities that we are involved in and other organizations are as well.
So, for example, we have put together a kit called Deter, Detect, Defend, which is kind of like a presentation in a box. We have materials in there like a DVD with descriptions of identity theft, PowerPoints and scripts, and we have given out tens of thousands of these to community groups, elder groups, church groups, so that everyone can learn more about identity theft. And the receptiveness is great. We also have it in Spanish.
The thing about identity theft, Tom, is that it is a very democratic kind of crime, no matter what language you speak, no matter your age, income level, you can be vulnerable to identity theft, so we do want to make sure that we get the word out at every level and people are listening.
FIELD: Oh that's excellent. As you look around, we talked about the greatest awareness; do you see a segment of the population or a topic about which there is the least awareness?
BRODER: It is really hard to say who doesn't know what's going on. One of the things that we are concerned with at the Federal Trade Commission is data security. As consumers, we have to be concerned about data security, and that is what we carry in our wallets, making sure that we don't have too much information in there or use/carry information that we don't need to be carrying, particularly Social Security cards or anything with your Social Security number on it.
But at the same time, we are concerned about companies and the steps that they take to ensure that the information that they maintain about us is properly safeguarded. So, consumers when they are providing information should be confident that the company that they are dealing with is going to be using proper data security to safeguard that information.
But going back to what we can do, so I know we talked about wallets. People should open up their wallets and take out all of the credit cards they don't routinely use because often time identity thieves will steal your wallet to get the information to use. The less information that is in there, the safer you will be.
The same with how you provide information through the telephone or online. I think we have all been sensitized to these emails promising us tens of thousands if not millions of dollars if we give somebody our bank account information. That is called phishing. Don't give the information out even if it appears to come, the email appears to have come from your bank or another trusted source. Your bank and your internet service provider will never send you an email asking you to give them the information that they should have about you. So, we need to be careful. We need to be savvy and ensure that we are not giving out our own information to people who could use it to do harm.
FIELD: Now, Betsy, would you consider those to be some of the fundamental best practices you recommend to people regarding identity theft?
BRODER: They are, Tom. And generally it is: safeguard your information, but with more particularity, before you throw anything away that may have personally identifying information, make sure you have either shredded it or ripped it up into such small pieces that no one else can put together that billing statements or credit card receipt that has your credit card account number. So, shredding is important, being careful what you carry around, and how you provide information to other people are all best practices.
Now I don't expect that someone to be sitting down and taking notes. All of these recommendations are available on the FTC's website, which is www.ftc.gov/idtheft. There you can find the steps to take to minimize your risk of identity theft and lots of other information that will make you a better-prepared consumer in this information age.
FIELD: And the information there is wonderful. You folks have done a great job with your resources.
BRODER: Thank you.
FIELD: What do you foresee, Betsy, as being the top identity theft issues as we go into 2008?
BRODER: Well, technology is always evolving, and so people need to stay on top of how they use their computer and what the vulnerabilities may be. So, we have talked about identity theft in the paper world in a way. We talked about the shredding of your documents and not carrying things in your wallet that you don't need, but there are also ways for identity thieves to infiltrate the communications that you engage in over the internet through your computer.
So, it is essential that people have upgraded their firewalls and other filters to prevent malicious spyware or keyloggers from infecting their computer, perhaps capturing their keystrokes and being able to get the information that will allow them to get into your financial accounts. So, being consumer savvy about those issues is very important and staying up to date on whatever software fixes there are to safeguard and put a moat if you will, around your electronic commerce.
FIELD: Well, it's more because the bad guys really are getting better at this, sad to say.
BRODER: We are trying to stay ahead of them, but they are very resourceful. There is a tremendous amount of money in identity theft, and you don't have to carry a gun.
FIELD: Right. For someone who is just becoming aware of the threat now and concerned whether they have been victimized, what do you advise to them?
BRODER: Well, you know we are all entitled to a free copy of our credit report from each of the credit reporting agencies every year. It is good on an annual basis to check your credit report to see if there have been any anonymous or unusual transactions or any signals that could indicate that you are a victim of fraud.
So, if you think that you may have become a victim of identity theft, get a copy of your credit report. If you see that in fact someone is misusing your information, you need to put a fraud alert on your credit report immediately. You only need to contact one of the three major credit reporting agencies. They will convey your request to the other two. That fraud alert will signal that either you are a victim or that you may be at risk of identity theft and the companies before they open up accounts in your name should take steps to ensure the person applying is in fact you.
So, first you do the fraud alert. Second, is you go to the FTC's website and you fill out an online complaint form. That is a way to both give information to the FTC, which we then share with criminal law enforcement, but also get more information you print out that complaint form and then you go down to your local police department and you get a police report using that form that you have already filled out as the bases of the police report. And you also must immediately contact any companies where these fraudulent accounts have been opened and shut them down. You may want to first contact them by phone, but it is essential that you follow up in writing and keep copies of all of your correspondence.
FIELD: Great advice. Betsy, I want to thank you for your time and for your insight today.
BRODER: It has been my pleasure. Thank you very much Tom.
FIELD: That's Betsy Broder with the FTC. This is Tom Field with Information Security Media Group. Thank you for listening today.