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Protect yourself from would-be scammers

December 8, 2010

Part 2 of a 2-part series.
We are fortunate to live in an area where we know our neighbors, where we feel like we can trust people. And for the most part, we can. However, our rural setting does not make us immune to scam artists. If anything, it makes us even more susceptible.
Last week we presented a lot of information on how to recognize a scam and what to do to protect yourself from being deceived. This week, to conclude our series, we will focus on what to do if you discover you have been the victim of fraud.
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning is leading an all-out war to try and stop these scam artists from taking advantage of the good nature and trusting attitudes of the people of Nebraska. In that effort, his office has established the Nebraska Senior Anti-Fraud Education Program (S.A.F.E.), and has been taking every opportunity to share that information with the state’s residents.
Josie Rodriguez, of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, presented this information to a group of seniors at the Prairie Pioneer Center in Broken Bow Nov. 30. One of the topics covered was identity theft - a horrible situation that many Nebraskans, including Bruning’s own family, have been the victims of.
You open your credit card statement. You didn’t buy much this month - just some groceries and some clothes. Halfway up the driveway you stop. The statements shows an overdraft. You had more than $1,000 in your checking account the last time you took out money, and now you are more than $50 in the negative.
You are a victim of identity theft. Someone has obtained access to your checking account or stolen your debit card. Someone has ruined your credit history by opening credit accounts in your name that haven’t been paid off.
Identity thieves can obtain your personal information in a number of ways:
> Finding personal information you share on the Internet.
> “Dumpster diving”, or going through your trash looking for personal information.
> Stealing your mail.
> Stealing your wallet or purse.
> Stealing your debit or credit card numbers through “skimming”, using a data storage device to capture in information through an ATM machine or during an actual purchase.
> Obtaining your credit report by posing as an employer or landlord.
> Diverting your mail to another location by filling out a “change of address” form.
Another popular scam is known as “phishing”, in which the user sends an e-mail falsely claiming to be from a legitimate organization, government agency or bank in order to lure the victim into surrendering personal information. This information may include a bank account number, credit card number or password. This same sort of scam can also be done over the phone by the scammer calling your home.
Now that the scammer has your information, what do they do with it? That include any number of things, including:
> Drain your bank account with electronic transfers, counterfeit checks or your debit card.
> Open a bank account in your name and write bad checks with it.
> Open a credit card account that never gets paid off, which gets reflected on your credit report.
> Use your name if they get arrested, and it goes on your record.
> Use your name for purchases involved in illegal activities.
> Use your name to file for bankruptcy or avoid debts.
> Obtain a driver’s license with your personal information.
> Buy a car and use your information and credit history to get a loan for it.
> Obtain services in your name, such as phone or Internet.
Bruning’s office emphasizes that everyone should order your credit report at least once a year. Rodriguez says there is only one truly free credit report available online, www. annualcreditreport.com.
So what do you do in the unfortunate case that you find yourself a victim of identity theft? Rodriguez says most importantly - act quickly. She told the group of seniors that she understands that people become embarrassed or ashamed if they find themselves the victim of a scam, and often the victim will hesitate to report it because of that shame.
However, acting quickly is the best way to make sure the crime does not get out of control. The longer you wait, the more of your money someone else is spending and, potentially, the greater the damage to your credit.
The first step to take to protect yourself is contact the police. You will want to file a report with your local police department, and get a copy of that report. You may need that documentation to support your claims to credit bureaus, creditors, debt collectors or other companies.
Next, you will want to close your accounts and initiate a fraud alert. If you notice any accounts under your name that have been tampered with or opened without your consent, close them immediately. Place a fraud alert on your credit file and contact the three major credit bureaus immediately.
Many Nebraskans may not be aware that a couple of years ago the state enacted legislation authorizing residents to place a “security freeze”. Any consumer in Nebraska may place a security freeze on his or her credit report by requesting a freeze in writing and sending the request by certified mail to the credit reporting agency.
A security freeze is a notice placed on a consumer’s credit file and prohibits consumer reporting agencies from releasing a credit report, or any other information derived from the file, without the express authorization of the consumer. This can help prevent identity theft.
Most businesses will not open credit accounts without first checking a consumer’s credit history. If your credit files are frozen, even someone who has your name and Social Security number probably will not be able to obtain credit in your name.
To place a freeze, you must write a letter requesting that the credit bureaus place a security freeze on your account., then send the request by certified mail to each of the three credit bureaus. Credit bureaus charge a $3 fee to place a security freeze on your credit report, unless you provide proof you are a minor or a victim of identity theft, in which case there is no fee.
Once you have placed a security freeze you can have it lifted for a temporary period of time at no charge. To do that you must provide proper identification and your unique PIN or password. You can order your own credit report if your file is frozen, but a creditor can not.
To ensure that you don’t end up paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges made by an identity thief, the best course of action is to act quickly. The faster you act, the less liable you are for unauthorized charges.
According to the Truth in Lending Act, your liability is limited to $50 in unauthorized credit card charges per card in most cases. However, if you do not report it after 60 days, you can lose any money the thief withdraws or transfers from your account.
Attorney General Bruning encourages Nebraskans to call the Consumer Protection Line if you suspect you may be a victim of fraud or scam artists. That number is 1-800-727-6432. For more information on how to protect yourself, or what to do if you are victimized, visit the Attorney General’s website at www.ago.ne.gov.

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