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Tuesday, April 1, 2003

Don't Lose Yourself to Identity Theft

More than 500,000 people will become victims of identity theft this year leaving them to untangle a web of deception created by another person's unauthorized use of their personal information.

"Identity theft is now the number one consumer complaint in America," stated County Executive Dennis Levinson, "and one that demands our attention. People fail to realize that a criminal doesn't need to break into your home to steal your most prized possession - your identity."

Valuable identifying data, such as a Social Security number, bank account number, credit card number or telephone calling card number, can be used by impostors to open new accounts, drain existing accounts, make purchases and apply for loans. According to the Federal Trade Commission, these crimes go undetected by their victims for an average of 14 months.

In public places criminals may engage in "shoulder surfing," watching you from a nearby location as you punch in your telephone calling number of credit card number or listening in on your conversation as you share this information over the telephone. Criminals may also engage in "dumpster diving" by retrieving copies of personal checks, bank statements or other personal records from garbage cans or communal dumpsters which they use to gain control over accounts and assume a false identity.

Another potential resource for these criminals is the Internet. Consumers often divulge personal information on non-secure sites in their haste to explore exciting features and "too good to be true" offers. With enough information, criminals can take over an individual's identity to conduct a wide range of crimes resulting in substantial damage to the victim's assets, credit and reputation.

In an effort to help educate the public and protect consumers the Atlantic County Division of Consumer Affairs has produced an identity theft brochure that outlines specific warning signs and steps to take to protect one's identity as well as what to do if one becomes a victim.

John Walsh, Director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, noted that one of the most important steps consumers can take to reduce the risk of fraud is to check their credit reports at least once a year. "By checking your credit report regularly, you will be able to more quickly detect if you've been a victim of identity theft and take the necessary actions to correct the problem."

Contact numbers for three major credit reporting agencies are contained in the identity theft brochure along with the numbers for the Social Security Administration and the Federal Trade Commission.

"The best defense against identity theft is an educated consumer," concluded Levinson. "I urge you to learn how to protect yourself from becoming another unfortunate statistic."

To receive a copy of the identity theft brochure or for more information about this subject, please contact the Division of Consumers Affairs at (609) 345-6700, ext. 2475. Brochures will also be available at two upcoming community events to be held at the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing: Showcase of Services, April 6, 11 AM to 6 PM and County Government Day, April 7, 10 AM to 5 PM.

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