Don't be a victim, defend against identity theft
by Leslie Benson
You can find Smyrna Angie's List member Larry Lipman shopping online monthly for everything from furniture to household gadgets. But he says he worries about becoming a target of identity theft.
The Federal Trade Commission says 9,556 Georgia residents reported being a victim of identity theft in 2009. Since 2003, Georgia has risen from 12th to seventh among states with the most reported cases.
Most incidents occur during the holidays because more people are shopping online, says Terry Sosebee, Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent. Thieves will use your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, driver's license number and credit card numbers to open new accounts.
"They'll purchase items that can easily be sold or traded, such as electronics, computers or jewelry," Sosebee says.
Lipman says he takes extra precautions when shopping online, creating a new password according to each site's specific instructions and only buying from known sources with good track records.
Cover your bases
If you fall victim to identity theft, the Georgia Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs urges you to:
- File a police report.
- Inform your creditors and financial institutions.
- Contact one of the three national credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian or TransUnion, to place an alert or freeze on your credit report.
Spencer Alexander, owner of highly rated Alexander Technical Resources in Atlanta, says he advises customers to go to websites of trusted brick-and-mortar stores, which tend to be more secure than mom-and-pop websites.
"Set up a secure PayPal account as your financial base, so the only information merchants get from you is your e-mail address," Alexander says.
Although he hasn't had his identity compromised, Lipman checks his monthly credit card statements thoroughly for fraudulent charges, as well as annual credit bureau reports. In addition, he says he keeps his computer virus software up to date.
Eric Regan, owner of highly rated E-Man Computer Services in Alpharetta [Ga.], recommends homeowners also download current security patches for their operating systems to protect personal data from websites.
"Be leery of any banner ad or unexpected pop-up that claims your computer is infected or in need of repairs," Regan says. "Rogue spyware scanners use these tactics to trick you into purchasing software that may be ineffective at best and malicious at worst."
Georgia residents may obtain a free credit report twice a year from annualcreditreport.com.
Ten years ago, a con artist stole Regan's identity to fraudulently purchase equipment from a warehouse outlet. "Fortunately, I discovered it quickly and notified my credit card company before it got worse," he says.
To avoid a similar occurrence, he now advises his customers to use credit cards, rather then debit cards, for a lower level of liability. He also suggests using different passwords for multiple online accounts. "This slows down the theft of additional accounts if one is compromised," Regan says.
Although identity theft can happen to anyone, Regan says unprepared consumers are especially at risk. "Don't be afraid to buy online," he says. "Just use reasonable precautions like you would for any other purchase."