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Protect Your Name

Once thieves steal your identity--which isn't hard to do--your good credit isn't safe

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

IDENTITY THEFT is becoming extensive throughout Silicon Valley, according to Assistant District Attorney Al Weiger. But nobody knows how extensive. "At the present time, Santa Clara County doesn't have a crime-rate statistical breakdown by type of crime," Weiger says. "We're in the process of correcting that, but we're a couple of months away."

If Weiger's assumption about the prevalence of the crime is correct, the county merely reflects a national trend. An article in a recent Consumer Affairs estimates that identity theft accounts for billions of dollars in losses nationally each year.

Almost all of the financial loss is taken by banks and credit companies themselves. If an individual's credit card is stolen, the card-owner can be held liable for up to $50 in charges; but if a card was fraudulently obtained by an identity thief without an individual's knowledge, the individual does not have to pay.

However, the damage to that individual's credit rating can be extensive and can often take months to repair.

The average consumer is very vulnerable to this type of crime. In many instances, an identity thief needs only an individual's Social Security number and one other piece of identifying information (a work number, for example).

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse of San Diego suggests a number of defensive mechanisms, including removing your name from the marketing lists of the three credit reporting bureaus (thieves can get all of your information from your tossed-away "already approved" credit card solicitations) and reducing to a minimum the release of your Social Security number to businesses.

A complete guide to "Coping With Identity Theft" is available from the clearinghouse's Web site. A pamphlet on "Identity Theft: What to Do If It Happens to You" can be obtained free by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the California Public Interest Research Group, 926 J S., Suite 523, Sacramento, 95814.

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro.

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