More than 27 million people in America have been victims of a crime that begins with their name. Identity thieves prey on personal information, such as name and address, Social Security number, and bank and credit card numbers. Once armed with this information, identity thieves can clean out bank accounts, rack up credit card and other debts, and give false identities to police. Victims have lost thousands of dollars and spent years trying to repair the damage to their credit records.
The crime is on the rise in Indiana; in 2003, the state ranked 18th in the nation in the number of identity theft victims. Indianapolis and Fort Wayne had the highest number of crimes, and 18- to 29-year-olds were most frequently victimized.
A Purdue Extension program in Marion County is helping to prevent more Hoosiers from falling victim to this crime. Participants are learning how to better protect their identities, how to minimize their risk and what to do if they are victims of identity theft.
“We developed the program because of the need for education about identity theft,” says Rebecca Haynes-Bordas, Purdue Extension family resource management educator in Marion County. “It's a big issue that is often overlooked. Many of us are in a hurry and become careless with important documents. I encourage everyone to keep all important documents in sight at all times.”
Program participants are taught the importance of paying attention to credit-card billing cycles, reviewing their credit reports regularly and shredding personal documents. In addition, they are advised to be more cautious about giving out personal information over the phone or online.
Haynes-Bordas distributes news articles about identity theft scams and handouts that help people determine if they're at risk. There are also instructions on how to obtain a free credit report, which is available on a centralized Web site www.annualcreditreport.com operated by the nation's three consumer credit reporting companies. The site is for exclusive use of consumers who are requesting their one free credit report every 12 months, a provision of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act.
Haynes-Bordas has presented the identity theft program to bank and federal agency employees, in addition to the general public. Elizabeth Kiss, Purdue Extension family resource management specialist, is leading a team of educators to develop the program for statewide use.
“It's important to be aware of identity theft and to keep track of all your important documents and credit cards,” says Haynes-Bordas. “Identity theft will never be eliminated, but there are ways to minimize the risk.”