Do You Know Where Your Identity Has Been?

To ensure that their personal information isn't hijacked, consumers need to protect themselves. Here are some tips to help keep your data out of the wrong hands.

By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff | April 24, 2005

"Who steals my purse steals trash," wrote William Shakespeare in 'Othello.'

These days it's the other way around. Steal somebody's trash, dig out his old credit card bills and tax documents, and you're well on the way to emptying his purse, and making his existence a living hell.

It's called identity theft.

Real money is at stake, and lots of it -- more than $50 billion, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

As always, crooks go where the money is, and where the pickings are easy. Information about people -- from Social Security numbers to computer passwords -- is all too easy to get, thanks to careless consumers and businesses.

The recent rash of security breaches at data centers makes many realize it's a bad problem -- though not as bad as we sometimes think.

According to TowerGroup, a Needham consulting firm, most of the estimated 10 million cases of identity theft cited in 2002 were standard credit card and check forgery scams.

Fewer than 200,000 were serious attempts to duplicate someone else's identity, in an effort to get new credit cards, drivers licenses, or passports.

Still, that's more than enough to worry about, especially considering the immense impact of these crimes. Victims are often presumed guilty and must spend lots of hours and dollars to prove their innocence and clear their records.

State and federal lawmakers are rolling out legislation to toughen the penalties for identity theft and to force companies to lock down their customers' private data.

Better laws might help, but only to a point. We've got to protect ourselves.

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Monty Solomon
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