Guess Who's Coming to Dumpster?

Be afraid…..be very afraid.

We live in a world where our personal habits, personal preferences, personal information,  and private lives are sometimes taken for granted. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer now realizes the folly of this careless, foolish and whimsical approach.

Last week, msnbc.com reported about the rash of failed savings and loans who are dumping mountains of personal information into trash bins as their businesses shut their shingles, fold their tents and abandon their clients.

The article chronicles the failure of First Magnus Corp. who was one of the largest mortgage lenders in the nation. The company was hailed as a “powerhouse” of savvy technological innovation. As unimaginable as it seems, “tens of thousands” of  documents including credit card and social security numbers were “dumped” in a nearby trash bin.

It now appears that every personal tidbit we make available in the process of securing credit for mortgages and secured or unsecured personal or commercial loans is up for grabs and beyond our ability to provide or even expect protection. Is that line of credit really worth the open exposure of all your personal data?

This new reality hit home for me today as an eagle-eyed industry associate correctly pointed out that a commercial lender who served each of our company’s mutual business clients had suddenly collapsed, leaving their customers and pending applicants’ data completely unaccounted for.

Mountains of juicy private data files are turning up in dumpsters and garbage cans all over the country. This criminal carelessness leaves us all exposed and hopelessly vulnerable beyond our control.

What’s a consumer to do? Protect yourself at all costs. Private identity theft insurance, regular credit monitoring and reactive credit restoration services are all good ways of keeping your guard up. To avoid pro-active identity self-defense is foolish.

The reality is that the information that passes through our hands and into the care of nameless, faceless, careless corporate grunts cannot be safeguarded with any degree of reliability.

Despite the fact that the Fair Credit Reporting Act was amended by Congress in 2003 to mandate better consumer privacy protection, commerce and industry must each do their part.

Because of the implosion of the sub-prime lending industry, many phone lines are down, many office cubicles are empty and many trash bins are full. In the new financial frontier its “every man and woman for themselves”.

Why not begin your proactive identity theft prevention/resolution plan today?

The Killer Identity Theft App

Think Id Theft is a “victimless” crime? Think Again!

In the years that I have searched for the telltale signs of “identity vulnerability”, I’ve often peeked into some rather innocuous and predictable places.

We don’t like to think of this crime as a gritty, true crime. After all, ID theft isn’t as bad as a typical violent TV crime-drama crime is it?

In fact, a little known reality is that the victims of identity often feel the same impact and violation as victims of violent crime.

Last week, an Illinois jury sentenced Eric Hanson to death for the murder of his parents, sister and brother in law. The four were found dead in an upscale home in the nearby city of Aurora.

In addition to first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and armed robbery, Hanson was found guilty of identity theft. He was accused of stealing $80,000 from his parents in a credit card fraud scheme.

Hanson’s killing rampage began when his sister informed the family that he had ripped them off for the money in the credit card scam.  Prosecutors claimed the convicted murderer and ID thief killed in a sick sad attempt to cover up his evil caper.

Statistics reveal that a large percentage of ID theft occurs within families. Scary eh?

You've Got Mail

Postal Customers Receive Timely Alert

John E. Potter, CEO of the United States Post Office has weighed in on the severity and urgency of the raging identity theft battle.

Personally, I was very pleased to receive this piece of seemingly “junk” mail last week and I’m hopeful that most postal customers took the time to read it. The letter acknowledges both the scope and seriousness of this crime.

Readers were reminded of the  lasting effects that ID theft can exact upon one’s credit worthiness,  employment eligibility and even access to medical care.

In April 2007, President George Bush’s Identity Theft Task Force published a 108 page report detailing the government’s strategy to make the fed’s efforts “more effective and efficient in the areas of identity theft awareness, prevention, detection and prosecution.”

Coordinating the efforts of multiple government agencies to analyze crime reports, craft a strategic safeguards plan, utilize available resources, educate the public, investigate complaints and vigorously prosecute perpetrators is essential. Its also a mouth full.

Hats off to the Postmaster General for slipping this timely little letter and it’s accompanying brochure from the Federal Trade Commission, into my mailbox and yours.

 Well done!

Long Distance Runaround

The identity theft investigative landscape is littered with jargon that delivers clever and concise ways to describe common criminal activities. We should all be familiar with terms like:  phishing, shoulder surfing, hacking, cyber-squatting etc.

Here is a new one for the record books. It is potentially lethal and is commonly referred to as …”swatting”.

This week the nation mourns the tragic loss  of L.A.P.D. SWAT Officer Randal Simmons and the shooting of his partner and fellow Officer James Veenstra, who is making a gradual recovery from his gunshot wounds.

Attended by nearly 10,000 people, the funeral was the largest in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department. 

Inexplicably and in a separate incident this month, a 19 year old prankster who lives 1200 miles away from Los Angeles, reportedly managed to fool a 911 operator in L.A. into taking a false report that was labeled “an emergency”.

These “swat” calls dupe authorities into believing that an emergency situation is occurring at a specific location and police are obliged to dispatch a SWAT team to an unsuspecting home or business. Imagine the confusion, danger and foolish waste of resources this can cause.

Responders are fooled by the prankster’s ability to either tap into the local police database to  generate a call, or to hide their true identity and location with “masking” software.

These prank 911 calls are have piqued the attention of lawmakers who are busy preparing new legislation to fight the crime.

Prosecutors have charged the 19 year old Washington state resident with 5 felony counts including computer fraud.

Rights versus Responsibilites

The bust in the housing market and the subsequent decline in our economy have left most Americans running for protective cover. We now hedge our bets, retract many of our “spec” investments and hunker down for the financial equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

As parents, spouses, investors and hard working contributors to our economy, we not only have the right to protect our “good names”, we have an obligation to do so. Financial self-defense has become a moral imperative in our uncertain economic times.

My own sensitivity to the subject of financial self-defense is a result of my personal identity theft ordeal a few years ago. At that point in my life I lived a relatively carefree existence with negligible awareness of the dangers that lurked on the horizon of my financial future.

Pretending to be me, an imposter abruptly ended my slumber. The dream morphed into a nightmare.

The imperative to defend myself became mandatory. It was now a matter of survival and I was determined to stay afloat financially.

Here are a few characteristics of those who are willing to take on the challenge of suiting up for the game of identity self-protection. I call these brave souls, Identity Warriors.

  • They recognize their own vulnerability
  • They create defensive momentum, avoiding analysis paralysis
  • The seek informed sources of insight like www.ftc.gov
  • They construct a personal plan to Detect Deter and Defend
  • They are consistent and vigilant
  • They routinely inspect what they expect on their credit reports

As Nelson Mandela reminds us: ” With freedom comes responsibility”.

DIY Identity Protection

Demystifying the Steps to ID Security

On Super Tuesday while waiting to cast my ballot at the polling place, it occurred to me. We are are an easily confused people.

As my fellow voters and I stood in line to cast our vote, the buzz in the room revolved around how complicated the entire Presidential primary process seemed to be.

It seems that every time I speak to groups on the subject of protecting themselves, I get the same predictable “dog in the headlights” stare.

You know the look. It’s the look that indicates either total disbelief or utter confusion. Inevitably, someone will approach me after a seminar and tell me another tale about how confusing the entire identity fraud landscape is. Partially true.

The good news is that while not foolproof, the process is manageable and doable with a modicum of distress. There are many companies which have surfaced in this emerging market for identity protection solutions. A few are quite good, the rest just want your hard earned cash.

Don’t reach for your wallet yet. There are many smart strategies that you can easily accomplish on your own. Here are 5 quick tips you can implement today for free:

  • Never,  use the red flag on your mailbox. It simply alerts thieves that your outgoing mail is unprotected and ready for pickup.
  • Use a locked mailbox unless you want to  leave your personal information unprotected from thieves and vandals. This is an easy way to deter opportunists.
  • Attempt to redirect your own mail to a “new” address at the post office without showing ID. You would be amazed if you knew how often fraudsters attempt this!
  • Consider using initials only on your return address labels. This helps keep your gender and marital status private from prying eyes.
  • Opt Out of credit card and insurance solicitations for 5 years or permanently…your choice. This is accomplished by dialing 1 888 5Opt Out or 1 888 567-8688. This is a secure and automated phone system that will ask for personal information including your Social Security number. It will virtually eliminate these unwanted offers in short order.

Stay tuned for more ways to protect your privacy and save a few trees in the process.

Check Fraud Scammer Caught Dead in His Tracks

Interesting things can happen when cops go to lunch! 

In the “Are you kidding me?” department…. Score a big win for alert citizens and lunching police officers.

According to a published report in World Magazine this week, check fraud and the sick- sad perpetrators who commit the crime have reached another all time low. Read on.

New York resident James O’Hare has been charged with check fraud, resulting from his attempt to cash someone else’s $355 Social Security check at a local Pay-O-Matic.

It seems that despite the fact that O’Hare’s roomate Virgilio Cintron had just died from natural causes, O’Hare is accused of dressing up the corpse and wheeling it down Ninth Avenue in an office chair. He and an accomplice were hoping to convince the unsuspecting cashier that his roommate was still alert and alive.

Understandably and fortunately, the macabre scene drew a crowd, including an on-duty police detective who just happened to be lunching next door.

Sadly, there are many bizarre tales of what Certified Crime Prevention Specialist John Williams recently referred to as “death scammers”.

Williams’ advice for the protection of your loved one’s assets is simple:

  • Never publish the deceased person’s full birth-date or address in an obituary

  •  Promptly notify the Social Security Administration of the death at (800) 772-1213

  • Mail copies of the death certificate to all 3 credit bureaus

Modern families must be vigilant about protecting the good name of both the living and the dead.

Happy Birthday Identity Theft….Not!

Let’s blow out the candles and cut the cake!

Ten years ago, Identity Theft as we know it was officially recognized as a crime by the U.S. Congress.

In 1998 Congress passed the Identity Theft Assumption and Deterrence Act after years of consumer complaints, confusion and criminal behavior unlike any recognized up to that point. Incidents of Identity Theft had grown a hundred fold during those days and it was time for Uncle Sam to fight back.

The Federal Trade Commission was established as the primary agency to collect data and to lead the government’s fight against this newly recognized crime.

Even then, back in the 90’s, Identity Theft topped the list of complaints at the FTC. Most consumer advocacy groups reported higher numbers of incidents than the FTC logged due to several factors including under-reporting by victims.

I know first hand about under-reporting because I too fell victim to ID fraud and worried more about the immediate financial consequences than contacting the police. Not smart.

While lecturing at the National Crime Prevention Council’s annual summit recently, I was reminded in an after hours session with a veteran police detective from Seattle that most criminals leave something behind that could help identify them if reported.

Most criminals leave behind what investigators commonly refer to as a “signature”. Unless we report these crimes as they occur, the police won’t be able to recognize a familiar detail that could shorten the career of an ID fraudster for good.

While it is true that police agencies are overwhelmed with the number of cases they must investigate and help prosecute, it would be foolish to think that reporting the details of any incident won’t eventually pay off in the end. If you are a victim or you know a victim, report the crime immediately to your local police or sheriff and the three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion).

Lets do all we can do make sure the authorities have the resources they need to get you back on the road to recovery. Document the details and report them immediately. Some agencies may not want to take the complaint, but you must persist until they do.

This crime has been referred to as the “self help” crime because the more you do for yourself, the deeper impact you will have on your own speedy recovery.

Stop wishing things were under control and start fighting back. Only then can we collectively blow out the celebratory candles.

Identity Theft 2008

Please keep your hands out of my pockets in 2008!

Welcome to my inaugural blog, but keep your hands out of my pockets in the coming year! I’m writing to identity theft fraudsters here, not merely the IRS. If you’re a like-minded hard working adult who intends to keep what you’ve earned safe from the nightmare of identity theft, then read on.

As 2007 wound down, the biggest story in newspapers and posts around the country this week (other than the early Presidential primaries and continued Middle East violence) is the irrefutable evidence that Identity Theft has grown by leaps and bounds in the past 12 months. This is despite the opinions of casual financial commentators to the contrary.

My goal here is to help make you dear reader, a smaller Identity Theft target in 2008 and beyond. Your family, friends and constituents can benefit from these strategies too!

According to an Associated Press release a couple of days ago, the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center is reporting an all time record number of data breaches and losses in 2007, up significantly from the prior year.

This discouraging news comes as a reminder that 2008 presents itself not only with the optimism of new financial ventures and rewards, but new risks and responsibilities for those of us with anything of value to protect.

Social Security and credit card numbers in the U.S. have been vanishing faster than David Copperfield’s scantily clad assistants on a Las Vegas stage.

Although the financial security of the masses is in jeopardy like never before, there is good news. Together this year, we will explore specific, tested, effective and highly recommended strategies that the average person can put into place at little or no cost. The secrets and strategies I will share with you can have tremendous impact on the safety of your financial nest egg and your family’s “good name”.

A word of warning here. Don’t look for my analogies to magic and prestidigitation to end any time soon. Mountains of personal data and millions of dollars are literally vanishing faster than Criss Angel can say “sim sala bim”.

The good news is that with a modicum of attention, you will be able to peek behind the curtain and catch the trickster before he fools you. As an identity theft advocate, risk management expert and former professional magician, I look forward to being your guide. Stay tuned for regular posts, up to the minute news and practical advice.

Award winning Broadway songwriter and lyricist Stephen Schwartz penned these words for the Tony Award nominated musical The Magic Show: “Hey, wasn’t that illusion fun? Not if you know how it’s done!”

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