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Cultural Currency: Identity Theft and Social Networks

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Wednesday, November 17th, 2010 | CWK Producer

“If they’ve managed to get a hold of your Social Security Number and take out credit card applications in your name, that may go on for months before you realize it and it may actually take you years to resolve the problem.”

– Suzanne Boas, president, CredAbility

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There’s lots of personal information shared on today’s social networks: Birthdates, phone numbers and photos. Seemingly anonymous posts can lead to identity theft, according to specialists at the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project – particularly for 18- to 24-year-olds.

Identity theft is an ever-increasing threat for all consumers — one that could damage your credit ratings and cost you thousands of dollars. And teenagers are among the most vulnerable.

Suzanne Boas, president, CredAbility (formerly Consumer Credit Counseling Service), has seen the damage first-hand. “It is frightening to think what can happen to you when someone gets a hold of your identity,” she says.

Hailey, age 18, has heard of one way thieves can steal identities. “I guess they could … get online – I’ve heard of people doing that – get online, take your identity and buy stuff,” she says.

And that’s just the beginning. Boas says, “If they’ve managed to get a hold of your Social Security Number and take out credit card applications in your name, that may go on for months before you realize it and it may actually take you years to resolve the problem.”

The far-reaching effects of identity-theft create countless hurdles to overcome. “You may have difficulty getting a job where a credit report is required. You may have trouble renting an apartment. You may have trouble leasing a car. You may have all sorts of difficulties that you can’t even imagine now,” says Boas.

While everyone is at risk, why are teenagers being singled out?

Boas says, “A teenager is a perfect target; just by virtue of their age, they’ve got an unblemished credit record to begin with.”

That’s why, experts say, parents need to help kids protect themselves.

“Number one would be leave your Social Security card at home,” says Boas. “Secondly, make sure you protect your credit cards all the time, and your checkbook. Don’t take them when you’re going out partying.”

And third, remember that your identity can be stolen online.

“So if you’re going to use a credit card on the Internet,” says Boas, “make sure that you’re going into a secure website.”

Knowing the risks of theft is the first step in protecting your identity and your financial future. And Hailey is now more aware.

“I think I’ll try harder definitely, knowing that it’s a bigger risk than I thought before,” she says.

What We Need To Know

In recent years, identity theft has become a very serious threat, due in part to the Internet and the availability of online activities, such as banking, shopping, social networks and gaming. According to Javelin Strategies, a research firm that often reports on identity theft, incidences of the crime increased by 11% from 2008 to 2009 altering the lives of 11 million Americans. If these numbers prove to be a pattern, one in every 20 Americans risks being a victim this year.

Consider the following statistics:

  • The average cost to an identity-theft victim is more than $1,000 to remedy damages. Sometimes it takes years to set things straight.
  • Consumer groups estimate that as many as 750,000 people a year are victims of identity theft.
  • Identity theft is the most popular form of consumer fraud, in part because it is the most profitable. Identity thieves stole nearly $100 million from financial institutions last year, or an average of $6,767 per victim.

One of the first question parents ask is, “How do thieves steal my information, or my child’s information?” Studies show most people can be identified with three pieces of information: their sex, ZIP code and date of birth. This information is often provided on social networking sites or through online memberships.

According to the Identity Theft Resources Center, thieves work in a number of ways. They can:

  • Go through your trash, looking for straight cut or un-shredded papers and records.
  • Steal your mail, wallet or purse.
  • Listen in on conversations you or your child have in public.
  • Trick you or your child into giving them information over the telephone or by email.
  • Buy the information via the Internet or from someone else who might have stolen it.
  • Steal it from a loan or credit card application you or your child may have filled out, or from files at a hospital, bank, school or business that you deal with. Thieves may obtain these records from trash dumpsters outside of such companies.
  • Get it from your computer, especially those without firewalls.
  • Be someone you know – even a friend or relative — who has access to your information.

If you or your child becomes a victim of identity theft, experts at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offer the following suggestions:

  • Contact the fraud department of any of the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your credit file. The fraud alert requests creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts. As soon as the credit bureau confirms your fraud alert, the other two credit bureaus will automatically be notified to also place fraud alerts. Each bureau will send you credit reports free of charge.
  • Close any of your accounts that you suspect have been tampered with, as well as any new accounts that have been opened fraudulently. Use the ID Theft Affidavit when disputing new unauthorized accounts.
  • File a police report, and get a copy of the report to submit to your creditors and others that may require proof of the crime.
  • File your complaint with the FTC. The FTC maintains a database of identity theft cases used by law enforcement agencies for investigations. Filing a complaint also helps the FTC learn more about identity theft and the problems victims have.


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