By Ellen Marks / Assistant Business Editor/Albuquerque Journal
PUBLISHED: Sunday, December 28, 2014 at 12:02 am
You don’t know the meaning of the word “chilling” until you visit a county jail and find out your name is on the list of inmates.
Or when you’re applying for a job, and a background check by a prospective employer shows you’ve been arrested for possessing a stolen vehicle, tampering with evidence and other felonies.
Meet Mark Medley, who’s experienced all of the above and more. He’s never been a Bernalillo County inmate nor has he ever committed any felonies.
He is, however, a victim of identity theft. He became one in 2001 when his wallet went missing after a city Summerfest event. The person who stole Medley’s identity was picked up on other, felony charges the next day and identified himself to law-enforcement authorities as Medley.
The resulting horrors unfolded over a period of months, followed by much anguish and work that marked the “long journey to clear my name,” Medley says. That included the visit to the jail, at the suggestion of an attorney, to make quick confirmation of what was going on. It also included dealing with the financial aftermath, including checks that bounced because the thief had drained Medley’s account.
Along the way, Medley successfully worked on getting legislative approval for an identity passport theft program, a statewide database for police agencies and the motor vehicles division. It documents identities that have been stolen so authorities can verify that a background check on you may turn up false information. You can also get a special driver’s license marked with a small “V” – victim of identity theft.
Medley also started a nonprofit, ID Theft Resolutions, which helps victims and gives presentations on prevention.
Of course, the problem of stolen identity has grown tremendously since Medley was struck in 2001, primarily because of an explosion of new technology. In 2013, nearly 1,500 New Mexicans reported their identity was stolen, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Nationwide, identity theft was the No. 1 type of consumer complaint filed nationwide last year.
It’s a big problem, but there are ways to minimize your risk and there is help if you become a target.
It’s also a big subject, so this week I’ll list some ways to help prevent this from happening to you. Next week, I’ll give you a step-by-step on what to do in the aftermath.
Prevention pretty much comes down to becoming more aware and more conscientious about keeping track of things. First off, know what the thieves are targeting: primarily Social Security cards; ID cards or driver’s licenses; bank cards, checkbooks, credit cards and bank statements and account numbers; wallets or purses and mail, including junk mail and email access.
Take these protective steps, according to the FTC, the state Attorney General’s Office and Medley:
•Place outgoing “snail mail” in a secure mailbox. If you don’t have a locked mailbox, pick up incoming mail as soon as possible.
•Pay close attention to billing cycles. If a bill doesn’t arrive on time, it’s possible an identity thief has stolen it. Check with creditors so you can act quickly if you suspect theft.
•Protect your Social Security number by leaving your card at home in a secure location. Do not carry it with you on a daily basis. Be very careful about giving the number out. Ask why it is needed, how it will be used and what will happen if you refuse to provide it.
•Pay close attention to your credit by ordering a free copy of your credit report yearly. It is “one of the best ways to catch identity theft,” the FTC says, because it will alert you to any fraud or errors. It will show what credit accounts have been opened in your name, how you pay your bills and so on. You are entitled, under federal law, to one free copy a year through AnnualCreditReport.com, 1-877-322-8228. Be aware of imposter sites that will try to charge a fee or get personal details. The email listed above will take you to the only authorized source.
•Place passwords on bank, credit-card and phone accounts. Choose a password that mixes random numbers with letters – in other words, not your birthday, your dog’s name or anything else a thief could guess.
•Keep your information safe online: If you shop online frequently, consider having a separate account for your online purchases. Send out your credit-card number or other personal information over a secure connection only. You can tell that it’s secure because its address will begin with “https” (the “s” lets you know it’s a secure site) and it will have a small padlock at the bottom of the page. Also, a window should pop up telling you the website is secure. Make sure you have virus protection, and update it regularly. Use a firewall program so your computer can’t be accessed by others, especially if you have high-speed Internet, which keeps your computer connected 24 hours a day. Never download files or click on links sent to you by people you don’t know or that seem odd in any way.
•Don’t give out any personal information – over the Internet, on the phone or through the mail – unless you were the one to initiate contact or you are sure about the identity of the person or the company.
•Store private documents only in secured lockboxes.
•Shred documents that you no longer need, including credit-card applications, insurance forms, health forms and billing statements. Don’t trust your garbage can. The Better Business Bureau occasionally offers free shredding. The next “Secure Your ID Day,” will be held from 10 a.m. to noon April 18 in the BBB parking lot, 7007 Jefferson NE.
Don’t fall for a bogus email offer, supposedly from “JetBlue Airlines Advertisement,” that promises to pay you $400 if you place a decal on your car advertising the airlines. If you bite, according to the FTC, the scammers will send you a check for more than that amount and tell you to deposit it, take your $400 and wire the rest to the company that will wrap your car. “Weeks after you wire the money, which could be thousands of dollars, you find out the deposited check was a fake,” the FTC says. Because you are responsible for any check you deposit, even if it’s a fake, you must pay the bank back, the agency says.