Vigilance critical to stopping ID thieves
This is the first in a three-part series on identity theft.
Electrical engineering junior Robert Reko did not go to Europe this summer. He did not fly to Lille, France or see the wonders of Euro Disney S.C.A. He didn’t even ride a train through the Italian countryside.
So he was surprised when more than $1,000 in expenses for such an extravagant trip showed up on his account in late June.
"I looked on my online bank account statement and noticed there were several large charges that weren’t mine," he said.
Since Aug. 17, five debit or credit card abuses and one case of identity theft have been reported by students, faculty or staff, according to the UH Police Department’s online crime reports.
In 2006, more than 8,000 people ages 18 to 29 reported identity theft complaints in Texas – 34 percent of the state’s total complainants on identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Victims ages 30 to 39 were the next largest group, constituting 25 percent of Texas’ identity crimes in 2006.
The FTC also estimates that more than 9 million Americans are the victims of identity theft every year, though many are unaware that a crime has taken place.
UH legal adviser Marilyn Golub with Student Legal Services said she sees several inquiries about various forms of identity theft, including credit card fraud, every year.
"We are all easy targets, but students are often more trusting," she said. "Of course, leaving doors unlocked and having folks they don’t know well in their dorm rooms and apartments increases a student’s risk."
Different crimes fall under "identity theft," from stolen credit card and Social Security numbers to false profiles created on social networking Web sites with damaging information, she said.
Golub has even seen instances where people who were under arrest claimed a different name and identity to avoid further penalties. Such identity theft can result in a criminal conviction on the victim’s record, or even a warrant for their arrest.
Stolen Social Security numbers can be the hardest kind of identity theft to rectify, Golub said.
"It’s very frustrating, particularly trying to get Social Security numbers straightened out," she said. "That can take years of constantly checking things out and getting it straightened out, and all of a sudden it’s not straightened out anymore."
Kymberly Sherwood, associate director of Student Financial Aid, said her office has seen students experience problems with applying for credit-based loans after being the victims of identity theft.
"Then they have to work out with the lender whether or not that loan can be approved," she said. "It happens everywhere."
The best way to prevent identity theft is to be vigilant, Golub said. She recommends checking credit reports often and carefully examining all bills and credit card charges.
Individuals can double check their credit accounts and finances for free once a year at each of the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Reports can be requested at www.annualcreditreport.com.
Computers can also be a venue for identity theft, and passwords should be changed frequently and contain what no one else would know, Golub said. Steps should also be taken to block or remove spyware, programs that retrieve information from computers and send them to a third party, Golub said.
Individuals should also be wary when asked to provide personal information, especially Social Security numbers, and ask if just the last four digits or another identifying number can be used instead, Golub said.
She also recommends to never carry a copy of one’s Social Security number.
UHPD Cpl. David Miller said to never provide sensitive personal information over the Internet or phone, no matter how legitimate a request may sound.
"If you receive anything from a credit card company or a bank asking that you confirm your account number, don’t do it," he said. "No bank or financial institution is going to ask you for your PIN number, account number or Social Security number over the Internet."
He also recommended carrying as few credit cards in a purse or wallet as necessary and shredding all documents with sensitive information before throwing them away.
Many UH departments, including Scholarships and Financial Aid, have switched to PeopleSoft numbers rather than using Social Security numbers for security purposes, Sherwood said.
While identity theft is more obvious when wallets and checks are stolen, many don’t realize there is a problem until they are denied credit, a check is refused or an unknown charge is received, Golub said.
In addition to assistance with identity theft issues, Student Legal Services also provides legal advice to students on issues varying from landlord and tenet problems to traffic tickets and employment issues and is available to all students enrolled at the University. More information is available at www.uh.edu/sls or by calling (713) 743-5450.
As for Reko, he said the investigation into the fraudulent charges is still pending, though bank officials said they don’t anticipate any problems.
He said that he’s now more wary with his credit card information.
"(My bank) said it could have been done online or one of the purchases I made with my credit card, they could have copied down the numbers on it," he said. "I’m a lot more careful if I buy anything online, make sure it’s a trusted Web site."
And that trip to Europe?
"Maybe someday, but that costs a little too much for my current budget."