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Worried about ID theft? ‘Buy a shredder… shred everything’

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was founded in 1914 through the Federal Trade Commission Act, one of former President Woodrow Wilson’s major policy initiatives, and has grown into a behemoth of an agency charged with the elimination of unfair business practices and consumer protection.

The Commission carries out its mission by investigating complaints by businesses or consumers.

Its biggest targets in the 1990s were telemarketers. In July 1995, Operation Telesweep cracked down on 100 business opportunity scams. In May 2007, the House passed legislation that gives the FTC authority to investigate and punish those who artificially inflate the price of energy, particularly focusing on oil companies that raise prices during emergencies like a hurricane.

But the complaint that arrives on the FTC’s doorstep the most is identity theft. FTC figures show that in 2007 alone, eight million consumers were victims of identity theft, with losses totaling nearly $50 billion.

In response, Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Jackson (CCCS Jackson) is concentrating on consumer education and protection as part of National Protect Your Identity Week, which started October 19.

Christmas shopping season is drawing near, and the easiest way to protect your vital information also makes a great gift.

“Buy a shredder,” said Chris Burford of CCCS Jackson, “and shred everything.”

Drawing attention to the devastating effects of identity theft is CCCS Jackson’s main mission, Burford said.

“We want consumers to become more aware of and take more seriously what exactly identity theft is,” he said. “It’s really a personal responsibility issue.

“It takes an average of 600 hours of work on the consumer’s part to get a situation corrected. Add that up, and that’s 25 days straight. That’s if you’re diligent.”

Correcting identity theft has several layers. Police affidavits have to be filled out and the credit bureaus have to be notified. Worse, though, is the process is not one that follows the courtroom guidelines of innocent until proven guilty.

“The burden of proof is on you,” Burford said.

Another issue CCCS Jackson combats is consumer complacency. Identity theft does not come with sound bites and graphic photos like violent crime coverage. Having your credit report littered with strange activity will not draw reporters. That does not lessen the impact, Burford said.

“This has really come on in the past four of five years,” Burford said. “It’s a big business, a business for crooks. But until it happens to you, you don’t take as seriously as you should.”

Besides a shredder, simple steps to prevent the possibility of your identity being hijacked include:

• Not carrying your Social Security card in your wallet

• Changing your driver’s license number to something other than your Social Security number

• Cleaning out your vehicle to ensure that nothing with vital information on it is visible or available

“Unless there is some reason that you need to show your Social Security card three or four times a week, there is no need to carry it around with you,” Burford said. “That is the easiest route an identity thief can take to cause trouble for you. And I can’t emphasize this enough: you have to shred everything. Don’t make it easy on anybody (to steal your identity). Stack everything up and shred it. That means utility bills, bank statements, credit card offers, basically anything that has your name and address on it.”

If you do find yourself the victim of identity theft, the first thing you should do is notify the credit bureaus. Credit bureaus share information with each other when they are alerted to fraudulent activity. After that, check all new and old accounts, even those that have been closed. “Anything they could have had access to,” Burford said. Next, file a complaint with the FTC. “And then file a police report,” Burford said. “But you have to handle this fast. You absolutely cannot wait a day or two. You have to act immediately.

“We don’t need to panic, but we do need to be a little smarter. If something doesn’t smell right, sound right, check it out. Be overly cautious. Take all the protective steps, because you can do absolutely everything right and it can still happen to you. But you do have the ability to reduce the chance that it will.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .


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