Safety challenge: how to prevent 5 common crimes

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Answer: Identity theft

(B) and (C) Receiving a phone call from an unknown creditor is often the first tip-off that your identity has been stolen. Identity theft occurs when a criminal uses your name, birth date and Social Security number to obtain credit cards, loans, utility services or even a driver's license.

Explain that the account was opened fraudulently and must be closed immediately, advises Mari J. Frank, a lawyer and privacy consultant in Laguna Niguel, California, who wrote The Identity-Theft Survival Kit (Porpoise Press, 1998). Ask for the address on the account, which may help track down the culprit. It's also smart to request copies of the original credit application and other documents for your files.

Next, call the fraud hotlines of the three major credit-reporting agencies-Equifax (800-525-6285), Trans Union (800-680-7289) and Experian (888-397-3742). Ask them to put a fraud alert on your credit profile, which helps stop further credit from being issued without your approval. Also request copies of your report so you can compile a list of the fraudulent accounts opened in your name. Next, close each account and file a report with local police. Be sure to follow up phone calls to creditors with a certified letter.

How common is identity theft? "It's the fastest-growing crime in America," says Frank. The number of consumers who contacted Trans Union's Fraud Victim Assistance Department skyrocketed from 35,000 in 1992 to more than 1 million in 2000.

How does it happen? A clerk could gain access to your personal information at your doctor's office, or a crook might find old bills in your trash. In a typical case, you won't realize that your identity has been stolen for an average of 14 months because you never receive a bill; the impostor usually lists his own address or a mail-drop location on the application. Your only hint may be when a creditor calls you.

To minimize your risk, don't divulge personal information, such as your birth date or Social Security number, online or on the phone. Shred bills and other documents that contain personal information before tossing them, and call 888-567-8688 (a service operated jointly by the major credit-reporting agencies) to opt out of preapproved credit offers. If your bank or any creditors use your mother's maiden name as a password, change it-family names are easy to dig up. Finally, review your credit reports at least once a year. They are free in some states; in others they can cost up to $8.50 each. For more information about identity theft, check out, or

Continued on page 3:  How to avoid rape


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