Identity theft: Safeguards you can put in place now

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“True identity theft is when someone else pretends to be you and applies for credit or benefits in your name,” stated William Lund, Esq., superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection at the Augusta State House. In his experience, “true identity theft is relatively rare,” but “state and federal law already provide many of the tools consumers need to protect against identity theft and to correct problems if it does happen.”

Check your credit and debit card statements monthly. Within 60 days on a credit card charge (less on a debit), report any unauthorized charge (both call and write) to the bank in question. If you comply with reporting regulations, federal and state laws mandate a prompt removal of the charge or a refund of your money.

Another “truly no cost, free way to protect yourself,” asserted Lund, is to obtain your annual credit reports. Use www.annualcreditreport.com, a government-sponsored Web site, to get them for free. After verifying your identity, you will receive your credit reports (have your printer ready) from each of the nationwide consumer credit reporting companies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion; or you can submit a written request for it (address on the Web site).

If you detect mistakes and report them to the credit reporting agency, federal and state laws again require their quick and free removal. For added precaution, request a “fraud alert” be put on your credit file. This requires creditors to further verify it’s you applying for credit should the occasion surface. Another freebie available to previous identity fraud victims: you can “freeze” your account from being reviewed by any business where you don’t already have an existing account. Since creditors won’t extend credit to consumers without this official report, this eliminates the possibility of someone pretending to be you getting a loan. FMI, call 1-800-DEBT-LAW.

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Lund’s final somber advice: “It’s also important for seniors to understand that a percentage of identity theft is committed not by strangers, but by someone known to the consumer.  This can be family, roommates, ‘friends’ or personal care assistants.”

Monique Gagnon, executive vice president of Auburn Rainbow Federal Credit Union, rarely sees identity theft, but added her recommendations to safeguard your identity: “Never divulge personal information on the phone. Many (bogus) companies try to impersonate legitimate companies. Don’t give credit card information on the phone. Don’t answer unsolicited emails.” Never deposit checks from unknown/unverified sources as this allows scam artists to access and wipe out your account. If you are victimized, immediately file a report with the police and notify your credit bureau.

In response to consumer interest, some home insurance companies either include identity theft protection in their homeowner policies for free or offer it separately at an affordable fee.

Elaine Taylor from Parent Insurance, Lewiston, explained that an identity theft specialist is assigned to assist victims of this crime (but currently only once has someone made a claim). Help might include cash reimbursement or filing for a new social security number.

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