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January open season for ID theft

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Most of us are glad this time of year when W-2s, bank statements and tax records start arriving in the mail in anticipation of our hopefully-lucrative tax refunds.

ID thieves are really glad because most of us manage to ignore the wealth of sensitive information we allow to sit in our mailboxes, even though they may seem secure.

Seven years ago this month, all the locking mailboxes in my Auburn neighborhood were robbed. When I notified my business contractors, I learned one large check had gone missing.

Said the client, "It’s the third time we’ve had to shut down our bank accounts and order new checks."

They pulled their business, and so did every other contractor. It was my second incident of ID theft, and it cost me my business.

ID Theft is the fastest growing crime today, and mailbox theft offers easy, low-tech access. Credit monitoring informs you of ID theft only after the crime is committed, so being truly proactive must involve outsmarting the criminals.

One study of closed cases between 2000-2006 said there are two primary methods used to steal mail for the sensitive information within: posing as the recipient and having the mail re-routed, or simply taking it right out of the mailbox (again, a locking box just means they need more force to enter).

Re-routing can happen when thieves use another person’s information to sign up for otherwise legitimate offers and services, and can be difficult to detect. Bolder thieves will simply file a Change of Address with the USPS, or combine the COA with the second method, taking mail right out of the mailbox and rerouting specific accounts or establishing new accounts to a new address.

Direct theft is a simple accomplishment, but luckily simple to avert as well. PO boxes, or PMB’s, are secure and affordable. The Toledo Post Office reports they have all sizes available, starting at $44/year, and you can pickup 24/7. Paperless checking, automatic deposit, and online billing also eliminate paper being delivered and falling into the wrong hands.

And regardless of how your mail arrives, get a shredder and use it. Additionally, file a mail hold if you leave home for vacation or extended periods of time, or ask a trusted neighbor, friend or family member to pick up soon after daily mail is delivered.

Again, proactive steps are the best toward preventing ID theft, and many organizations are around in the event you think your identify may have been violated. If you think you’ve been a target:

1. Contact the Credit Bureau Fraud Department. A call to any one of the "Big Three" will send the information to the other two.

2. Shut down all compromised accounts.

3. File a police report. (Most agencies will require this measure.)

4. Develop a method of tracking your steps to notify and correct your records. Certified mail with signature requested is highly recommended.

5. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

6. Contact your homeowners or renters insurance. Most cover these claims.

Visit www.atg.wa.gov/ConsumerIssues/ID-Privacy.aspx for more about ID theft protection and prevention. You can get a rundown of popular scams to look out for at www.abagnale.com/pdf/2926w.pdf. To contact one of the Big Three, contact Equifax at 1-800-829-4577 or www.equifax.com; Experian at 1-888-397-3742 or www.experian.com; and TransUnion at 1-800-888-4213 or www.transunion.com.

This is the first of a three-part series by Marlea Hanson on the issue of preventing ID theft during tax season. Look for subsequent installments in future editions of Town Crier.

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