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An insidious white collar crime, financial identity theft affects nearly 10 million Americans annually with losses totaling over $50 billion. Out of that sum, losses incurred by commercial enterprises account for over $46 billion in credit card fraud, defaulted loans, mortgage fraud and fraudulent lines of credit. Because of a proliferation of incidences, The U.S. Federal Trade Commission helped to enact the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 which made it a crime to impersonate someone using fraudulent identification to procure assets or benefits in the United States. Unbeknownst to some unscrupulous ID bandits, using someone else’s name, Social Security number, or credit reputation for monetary gain is a federal offense punishable for 5, 10, or up to 30 years in the federal penitentiary, not to mention fines and charges imposed by local and state governments. According to the Bible, stealing something that belongs to another is a sin punishable by death, except we repent. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

Financial identity theft is a crime which discriminates against no one. Victims can be of any age, ethnic group, or income; and anyone with a S ocial Security number, drivers’ license, bank account, or computer can fall prey. Thieves like to take advantage of unsuspecting individuals who have financial assets, especially those with excellent consumer credit scores. If crooks gain access to personal credit information, they can rack up fraudulent purchases and ruin an individual’s credit overnight. ID bandits can also confiscate Social Security numbers, bank account and safety deposit digits, drivers’ licenses and other forms of identification to assume someone else’s persona and cash in on retirement savings accounts which have taken a lifetime to accumulate or steal college funds that can never be replaced. Most crooks use credit cards to pay for everything from big ticket items like tropical island vacations, big screen TVs, or car rentals; to every day items like movie rentals and groceries. And they have no qualms about assuming the identity of the deceased to fraudulently acquire goods, services, or benefits that rightfully belong to someone else.

In the age of high-tech electronics and digital databases, identity theft may simply be a result of too much information too accessible in too many places. Individuals leave a digital footprint every time they log onto websites or fill out online registration forms or queries. Unscrupulous hackers or network marketers can easily track a web browser’s visits to specific sites and home pages. Filling out online forms gives corporations and crooks enough information to find out where individuals live, digits for Social Security and credit card numbers, and telephone numbers. Shoppers can also be careless at checkout counters and ATM machines. Identity theft can take place right under a consumer’s nose as they sign credit card receipts and leave carbon copies in plain view; or punch in a personal identification number at an ATM while a thief peers over their shoulder. Some individuals only become aware that a crime has been committed when credit card statements come in the mail for purchases that cannot be accounted for or notices of default on loans that were never authorized.

individuals only become aware that a crime has been committed when credit card statements come in the mail for purchases that cannot be accounted for or notices of default on loans that were never authorized. By then, it is almost too late to catch a thief and the process for retrieving one’s identity can be a long and tedious one. People can also become victims of identity theft simply by taking out the trash. ID bandits have no scruples when it comes to dumpster diving to try to steal assets. Discarded signed receipts, credit card and bank statements, cancelled checks, utility bills, and credit card offers are all prime pickings for thieves looking for personal information and account numbers. A signed cancelled check is just like money in the bank. Crooks need only re-order checks and have them forwarded to a new address. By the time the bank and account holders make a discovery, bandits have cashed in and disappeared. And the sad thing is that the checks are not counterfeit and the bank can continue withdrawing money as long as thieves continue to write them; that is until account holders blow the whistle.

How can the average consumer prevent identity theft? By exercising caution and protecting personal and confid ential information, individuals can prevent someone from robbing them of their money and their reputation. Shred all cancelled checks, credit card offers, and receipts before discarding them in the trash can. Always shred any papers with Social Security or bank accountnumbers before trashing them. Keep original copies of important papers , such as deeds, professional licenses, or wills in a safe deposit bank and not at home. Many individuals become victims after a home invasion; but if important papers are not kept on the premises, such confidential data remains safe. Some insurance companies also offer ID theft protection and a system to help victims renew identification, report thefts, and recover losses.

Switching to Internet banking gets crooks off of a paper trail. Web-based banking on secure sites ensures that identity theft criminals can’t intercept confidential credit information. Financial transactions made electronically are not only safer, but banks only expose a portion of account numbers, usually the last four digits; and it is difficult for thieves to gain access. Consumers should never divulge personal information, such as Social Security numbers, over the telephone. If an account holder suspects that someone is impersonating them, banks, credit card issuers, and installment loan companies should be notified immediately. Revolving charges and bank accounts can be closed and law enforcement and banking officials can be on the lookout for evidence that stolen cards are still being used. In the final analysis, the best defense against ID bandits is consistent vigilance in safeguarding personal and confidential information and alerting authorities the moment a crime is suspected.