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Tips help reduce risk of identity theft, fraud

By Keryn Page

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- With the number of identity theft cases rising to 814 last year alone, consumers should take steps to avoid becoming the next victim.

The Federal Trade Commission released information earlier in the year citing credit card fraud as the No. 1 type of identity theft reported in Mississippi, accounting for 46 percent of the cases. Other types of identity theft include phone or utilities fraud, bank fraud, government documents or benefits fraud, loan fraud and employment-related fraud.

Jackson rated as the top Mississippi city for identity theft cases (75 victims), followed by Brandon (34), Gulfport (31), Meridian (27) and Biloxi (23).

"Identity theft is the fastest growing problem consumers are faced with today," said Susan Cosgrove, a family resource management agent with Mississippi State University's Extension Service. "But there are steps consumers can take to avoid becoming victims of this crime, which can be financially devastating."

The specialist said consumers should avoid giving too much information on personal checks, which have the potential to be handled improperly by the many hands through which they pass.

"The next time you order personal checks, have only your initials -- instead of your first and last names -- put on them," Cosgrove advised. "If someone takes your checkbook, they will not know if you sign your checks with just your initials or your first name; but your bank will know how you sign your checks."

A common mistake consumers make is having their Social Security numbers printed on personal checks. Cosgrove said consumers should provide this information by writing it on the check only when absolutely necessary.

In states that commonly use Social Security numbers as driver's license numbers, consumers can request an alternate number. In Mississippi, consumers should contact the Department of Public Safety driver's license office at (601) 987-1212.

Using alternate but valid telephone numbers and addresses on personal checks can keep private information from criminals while still allowing merchants to reach the check-writer when necessary. Cosgrove advised using a post office box address rather than a street address; using a work address and telephone number is another option.

While credit card companies typically ask consumers to write their account number on checks when making payments, Cosgrove said only the last four digits of the number are necessary in most cases.

"The credit card company knows the rest of the number, and anyone who might be handling your check as it passes through all the check-processing channels won't have access to your account," she explained.

If, despite taking the proper precautions, a person is victimized by this relatively new crime, Cosgrove said it is critical to take the appropriate steps to avoid the unauthorized use of personal information.

"The key is to have the credit card companies' toll-free numbers and your account numbers handy so you know whom to call in the event that your purse or wallet is stolen," Cosgrove said. Keep photocopies of driver's licenses, credit cards, social security cards, passports and other important documents in a safe place, such as a file in the home or office.

More importantly, victims must report identity theft to the three national credit reporting agencies to avoid being responsible for unauthorized charges incurred on their accounts. These agencies and their telephone numbers, which should be kept in a safe place with other identity information, are: Equifax, 1-800-525-6285; Experian (formerly TRW), 1-888-397-3742; and Trans Union, 1-800-680-7289.

"This means any company that checks your credit knows your information was stolen, and they are required to contact you by phone to authorize new credit," Cosgrove said.

A call to the Social Security Administration's fraud line at 1-800-269-0271 will prevent improper or illegal use of a stolen Social Security number.

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Released: April 7, 2003
Contact: Susan Cosgrove, (601) 635-2268

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