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Carlos B. Lopez, Constable

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Bruce Elfant

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Constable's Notebook - March 2008

Last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission, more than nine million Americans had their identity stolen, costing consumers and businesses nearly $50 billion. Identity theft is initiated by people who search through our garbage, steal our mail, look over our shoulder at ATMs, ask for personal information over the phone or online and hack into or steal databases. The Austin Police Department receives about 400 identity theft cases each month that range from a few dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Most of us don’t discover that we have been hit until we review our credit card statements, are turned down for a loan or hear from overly aggressive collection agencies.

The good news is that most identity theft can be prevented by taking the following measures to protect personal information.

Mailboxes - Identity thieves find un-secure mailboxes a treasure trove of personal information ranging from bills and mailed checks to credit card offers. Mailboxes can be secured by installing a mailbox with a lock or a slot that drops mail into your home or by obtaining a post office box. Mail should be placed directly into Postal Service mail boxes.

Garbage - Our garbage is also an easy mark for thieves. NEVER throw anything out to the curb that contains any personal information without first shredding it.

Computers - Computers should be secured with firewalls and anti-virus software.

Solicitors - Too many of us are also too willing to provide personal information to solicitors and web sites without knowing for sure whether they are legitimate. Phony look-alike web sites that mimic well-known companies make this more difficult for consumers. Most legitimate businesses will not ask for this information. You can call businesses that appear to be asking for information to confirm their need for the information and you should report all fraudulent solicitations to the National Consumer League Fraud Center at www.fraud.org.

Wallets and purses - Personal information carried in purses or wallets should be minimized. Social security numbers, passwords and PIN numbers should be memorized.

ATMs and checks – Always shield your ATM, PIN or check account information.

Credit cards – Use credit cards that include your photograph.

If you suspect that you have been a victimized of identity theft, report any unauthorized charges to the appropriate credit card companies, put a stop payment on lost or stolen checks and file a report with the Austin Police Department (keep a copy). You should also contact the three major credit reporting agencies to have a security alert placed on your account and review your credit report for any unauthorized activity. More information about identity theft provided by the Attorney General can be found at www.oag.state.tx.us and the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-IDTHEFT.



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