Dear Friends,

At last! Here are the names of the first 25 readers who won a copy of "50 Ways to Protect Your Identity and Your Credit" by Steve Weisman. The remaining winners will be listed next week.

The two columns that covered this subject (Part I here and Part II here) generated a number of personal horror stories. Indeed, overwhelmingly the folks who wrote asking for a copy of the book had been victims of identity theft. Which makes me wonder if this is one of those things we don’t take seriously until it’s too late? As you’ll read in Alan’s case, even though ID theft cost his family $20,000 (so far), he apparently still can’t get their attention on this.

As Erma and Amy point out, marriage can be the start of identity and credit problems. It’s getting to the point that you might want to inquire about the credit histories of your in-laws before you say “I do.” Or your good name could get dragged into the mud.

And, if you think trying to straighten out a problem with your credit report is a hassle, try doing it from the other side of the world, where Tony Z. is serving our country.

**VERY IMPORTANT**

I neglected to ask that you submit an address — the old-fashioned kind, i.e. the one the Post Office uses. Mea Culpa.

So, if you see yourself identified in the letters below, please send another email with this information. Make sure the subject line says "Credit Book." Any other subject line will be ignored! It will take a couple of weeks to process.

Many thanks to all who wrote in and to published Pearson/Prentice Hall for making no fewer than 50 copies available to "Your $ Matters" readers.

Gail

Dear Gail,

I need that book because my husband has a very common name: John Jones.

Erma J.

Dear Erma —

If you think you’ve got problems, imagine inheriting a parent’s credit history as well as his name! Read about the mess this got Amy into (below).

Gail

Hi Gail,

My husband and I have been married for almost one year, and we are looking to buy a home of our own. We began with the logical first step — checking our credit reports. What a shock that was! My husband and his father have the same name and both have lived at the same address (it’s the house my husband grew up in). The trouble is, my father-in-law doesn’t exactly have a good credit history and some complaints filed against my father-in-law have ended up in my husband’s file!

We spent well over 100 hours investigating items on his credit report via phone calls, letters, etc. There were several accounts on his report that had been opened before he was born, and the credit reporting agencies have not been able to explain that one to us. We filed numerous disputes with the credit agencies and also contacted creditors directly when the agencies would not help.

That was about 6 months ago. We still haven't managed to get everything cleaned up. Some collectors have refused to remove information from my husband's credit report. They say our only recourse is to get my father-in-law to claim responsibility for the accounts by writing a letter and providing copies of his driver's license/Social Security card/birth certificate.

We also learned that one of my husband's siblings applied for a student loan and put my husband as a co-signor — without our consent! That was enough to send us through the roof. We put fraud alerts in his credit file and we are planning to seek legal advice about changing my husband's name so that we don't end up with his parents' collections/past due accounts on our credit reports.

As you can see, we could definitely use the "50 Ways to Protect Your Identity and Your Credit" book. Thank you for the excellent advice in your columns; we read it every week.

Sincerely,

Amy C.

Dear Amy,

According to author and attorney Steve Weisman, the federal “Fair and Accurate Transaction Act” put a greater obligation on credit agencies to “investigate fully” any discrepancies or objections that are brought to their attention.

If you feel you have exhausted your options and keep getting ignored, consider hiring an attorney. “The bottom line,” says Weisman, “is if a credit agency doesn’t do a legitimate investigation when a problem is brought to their attention, you can sue for damages. It may be what it takes to get them to respond.”

Start by having an attorney send a letter. Often, that’s enough to get the situation corrected. But if that doesn’t work, you might have to go to court. See if you can find an attorney willing to take your case on a contingency basis.

And ask your husband to consider slightly changing his name — adding a middle initial or something.

Gail

Gail,

I’m writing you from Kabul, Afghanistan where I’m deployed. I have been notified by Bank of America that my mandatory government credit card account data was in that batch that went missing — “AWOL,” as we say in the military. I assure you that if I lost government records I would be standing in front of my general listening to charges being read and thinking of how cold winters can be in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Tony Z.

Forward deployed to Afghanistan

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of Liberty." JFK, WASHDC, 20 Jan 1961

Hi, Tony —

All I ask is that you share what you learn from this book with others in your unit… and come home safely,

Gail

I am retired, and in addition to our own finances, I am currently responsible for the financial affairs of my wife’s mother, who lives in a nursing home about 270 miles from us. I also assist our daughters in much of their financial doings, one in Baltimore and the other in San Antonio.

We appreciate your readable and timely advice.

Thank you.

Harry R.

P.S. How can I expunge my SSN from previous medical insurance and treatment records? Until this year, my medical insurance company used the SSN for all records, including those of my wife, which also included hers when she was treated. I refuse to give the SSN out any more, even if I have to forego what I might be trying to do, but as you said, it is out there everywhere, and those that have it keep on using it.

Hi, Harry —

You can write and request that a company remove your Social Security number (SSN) from your record once they no longer have a need of it. But that fact is, they’re not legally obligated to do so.

But help might be on the way: A new law going into effect June 1st says companies that possess consumer information for bus purposes have to take greater steps to dispose of that information when they no longer need it. “It means there’s going to be more shredding and protection of the information,” according to Weisman. At the very least, you could write and ask the medical providers involved what their plans are in light of the new law about adopting tigher safeguards for patient records.

But it comes down to this: you cannot with absolute certainty expunge (nice word!) your Social Security number from every single document that exists. No matter how good you personally are about guarding this information, “you’re always at the mercy of the weakest link among the companies you deal with, says Weisman. In other words, if a company has a bad employee or poor security (how would you know?), you’re at risk.

But, frankly, you’re probably at much less risk than many other seniors who aren’t as savvy – and therefore aren’t as careful- about protecting themselves. Since you’re getting a book, maybe you could share this message with others- friends, relatives, and even, perhaps, residents of a nearby assisted living facility?

Keep up the vigilance,

Gail

Gail,

A few years ago our credit card number was stolen and about $3,000 worth of merchandise was purchased before we discovered it and cancelled the card. My husband and I are nearing retirement and the last thing we need is for someone to steal our identity, clean out our bank accounts and destroy our credit. We could use a copy of "50 Ways to Protect Your Identity and Your Credit".

Sincerely,

Jeanette N.

Jeannette,

I suggest that you take a cue from Harry (above) and start by making sure your healthcare providers are taking the proper precautions with your information.

Happy retirement!

Gail

Gail —

I need this book because my husband responds better to printed advice than he does to what I tell him!!

Colene M.

Dear Colene,

Hope the book helps with any ID theft problems you have, but it sounds to me as if what you really need is something that deals with "relationship" issues. Have you tried hiding the TV’s remote control? That’s usually pretty effective at starting a conversation!

Take care,

Gail

Gail,

While I was traveling abroad two summers ago for a month and a half my wallet was stolen from me. I immediately filed the necessary police report in that country and then notified my credit card issuers. At the time I had three credit cards and one debit card.

When I returned home I called all three credit card companies again. Two out of three were very helpful, but [the third] decided that they wouldn’t believe that I had actually filed a report with the police in a foreign county. When I got home this company wanted to hold me responsible for the thief charging $1200 at a bar somewhere in the town! Credit Card Company #3 finally relented when I sent them a copy of the police report. I was so upset by the hassle they gave me I cut up the replacement card they sent me.

My question is this: I applied for a credit card with a different company and got refused because of the comments placed in my file by Credit Card Company #3. This concerns me because I will be applying for a mortgage within the year and would like to know how to challenge this and eliminate this black mark.

Sincerely,

Marshall C.

Thanks for sharing your story, Marshall. It’s an important lesson for everyone: if you notify a credit agency that you are a victim of I.D. theft and request that a “fraud alert” be put on your account, this only lasts 90 days. According to Weisman, “If you want this extended to seven years, you have to file a police report and submit this to the credit agency.

As for your particular predicament, Weissman suggests you order a copy of your credit report (which is free because you were refused credit) and see what it actually says. It sounds as if there’s nothing you’ve done that should affect your credit. “It’s a matter of asking the Credit Card Company #3 to revise its remarks about you. If they don’t and if has no basis, get an attorney and suggest they could be legally liable.”

I’d be interested in knowing what happens,

Gail

Gail,

My family is driving me crazy. They think this identity theft thing is "no big deal."

Meanwhile my wife was pickpocketed 6 months ago and the thieves wrote checks on stolen checks from my wife’s purse, had them cashed in local banks using my wife's identification, and pocketed over $20,000!

I can't get them to think this anything more than an inconvenience!

Allan I.

Hi, Allan —

You don’t state this in your letter, but if you had to “eat” the $20,000 loss from your bank account something isn’t right. If someone illegally accessed your account you are not responsible for those losses — the bank is.

Weissman says the only time a bank might hold the account owner is responsible is if they allege you were derelict or late in reporting the theft. Then they might claim you’re partially responsible. But you weren’t the one who passed the bad checks and you weren’t the one who cashed them.

According to Weissman, “It’s outrageous. A letter from a lawyer should straighten this out very quickly.”

Unfortunately, I think it will take more than a lawyer to straighten out your family!

Best wishes,

Gail

Hi Gail,

I was called by a credit card company that I don’t have an account with. They informed me that a credit card had been applied for in my name, but when the person called to activate it, they called from a phone other than mine (as listed on my credit reports.) The credit card company disapproved the activation of the card and called me.

I followed up and got a copy of the application and found that it was a “pre-approved” mailing for SOMEONE ELSE!! The perpetrator of this scheme simply crossed out the original name on the “pre-approved” form and wrote in mine. The credit card company accepted it and sent out a card to an address that someone had slipped into one of my credit reports. I obtained the address that the card was sent to and even got the phone number that tried to authorize the fraudulent card. The addresses were two blocks from each other.

I went to the police in the city where the two addresses were, filled out a police report and then was told that there was nothing they could do because nothing had actually been stolen!

The issuing credit card company refused to do anything to stop these people from doing this in the future. They claim that the credit card company is the victim, so they won’t help you. I disagree. The credit card company is the [conduit] through which [ I become the victim]! It is my understanding that simply fraudulently applying for credit is a crime.

Until the police and the credit card companies care about identity theft, nothing will happen to stop the problem.

Todd H.

Dear Todd,

I don’t know how you got your hands on all of this information, but Betsy Broder, the attorney who heads up the I.D. prevention program at the Federal Trade Commission invites you to enter your story into the FTC online complaint form at: http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/

“It’s likely that whoever was doing this to you is probably trying the same thing with someone else’s identity,” say Broder. “Since you know an address and phone number, this information could be helpful in linking your case to others.”

While trying to take your identity amounts to attempted larceny and I.D. theft itself is a federal crime, Broder says it’s up to individual police departments as to how they handle this type of situation. The reality is there may be other more serious crimes that take priority.

However, you might want to go back to the credit card company is ask for a statement in writing saying that they do not hold you responsible in any way and will not put any negative remarks in your credit report. According to Broder, “The more documentation the better.”

To Weissman, this is another case of a company shrugging off identity theft as just another cost of doing business. “They’d rather absorb some cost of fraudulent charges than put in stricketer security systems that might limit immediate access to credit and stop people from making impulse purchases.”

That why, according to Weissman, businesses are fighting a proposal by Senator Diane Feinstein (D, CA) that would extend California’s “credit freeze” law nationwide.

In California, you can put a “lock” on your credit report instructing that no new credt can be issued to unless you use a password. “This takes a couple of days. It protects you from identity theft, but slows the credit process.”

In other words, even if it’s you applying for credit, it will take a day or two for this to get approved…long enough for you to think twice about making the purchase.

Hope this helps,

Gail

Dear Gail –

Great information in your ID Theft column! I belong to several women's groups in Clatsop County, Oregon that meet on a regular basis. Several members of these groups have been victims of identity theft. I would like the opportunity to present the information contained in "50 Ways to Protect your Idenity and Your Credit" to the women in these groups. I also am a member of the Clatsop County Sheriff's Posse and am a member of the Posse Shooting Team. Having this information available to share with other posse members and other posses in the state of Oregon would be beneficial to all!

Thanks!

Myrna P.

Hi, Myrna —

Give my best to the women of Clatsop County!

Gail

Hi Gail,

Love your column. Always very informative. However, you should have pointed out that we need to stop the common practice of writing our credit card account numbers on the checks we send to pay our bills.

The reason is that once the check arrives it passes through "many" hands. If you had include your "full" credit card number... BINGO... some scrupulous employee now has all the information they need- name, address, account numbers. From there they can access "more personal" and "sensitive" information about you.

Mike R.

Howdy, Mike —

I’ve seen this same suggestion, but think about it: the monthly invoice you include in the envelope along with your check contains all of this information! If an unscrupulous employee wanted the rest of your account number all he/she would have to do is look on your invoice.

You get an “E” for Effort and a “B” for Book!

Gail

Dear Gail:

It was a shock to find unauthorized charges on our credit card bill. Our cards had not been physically stolen. Our card company helped us contact the businesses involved and promptly made corrections. We opted to pay for a new credit card number to start anew. Now we “look over our shoulders” on most transactions.

We try to be careful, but know that much of our personal information is already “floating around out there.” We’d appreciate information on ways to be careful without being paranoid.

Or should we be paranoid?

Thank you,

Diana L.

Dear Diana,

Maybe “paranoid” is too strong a word. But I certainly encourage you to be cautious and careful about giving out this information.

Take care,

Gail

Dear Gail,

I am disabled and need to purchase via credit card over the

telephone or on-line using the computer.

Ron C.

Hi, Ron,

You’ve got it!

Gail

Gail —

I’ve had a couple of brushes with identity theft.

A couple years ago, a bartender at a major restaurant chain stole my credit card number and used it. I figure he must have taken it when I opened a tab for an hour or so during happy hour. I got my credit card back when I closed out my tab, but then a bunch of charges appeared. Thankfully, the credit card company caught this before this went far.

Several years ago, my wife received a notice from a collection agency regarding a $500 unpaid phone bill. After some investigation, we determined that the phone number assigned by the phone company to my wife when she lived at a prior apartment had been recycled, and the second customer who had that phone number must not have paid their bill.

Thankfully, my wife and I save all of our bills and records for 7 years, so we found a statement that said she had no outstanding balance when she moved. After a few months, we received confirmation from the phone company and the collection agency that the matter was closed, and we did not have to pay someone else's phone bill.

Several years went by and we thought the matter was closed. However, when we applied for a mortgage to buy our first house, we discovered that at least one of the credit agencies was still reporting this error. Once again, we had to dig through our files to find the correspondences previously received that showed we did not owe any money to anyone for this bill.

These two issues are why I would like to obtain a free copy of the book.

Brian G.

Hi, Brian,

Chalk one up for packrats! I can’t believe you save all your bills for 7 years, but it sure paid off. Thanks for two great examples of how ordinary, law-abiding citizens can get snared by I.D. theft.

Enjoy the book,

Gail

Gail;

I need this book because: I’m the designated person in my wife’s family (that’s right, my father-in-law selected a son-in-law as his most trusted person) to handle financial matters of my deceased father-in-law’s estate. In addition, he named me the “successor general partner” in a family limited partnership, where all the other partners are sisters, their husbands, and his widow, who has Alzheimers. I’ve also got power of attorney for my mother-in-law.

Every one of these entities have SS numbers, bank cards, credit cards, bank statements, and receive a slew of junk mail, including solicitations for credit, etc. I’m responsible for filing all tax returns, quarterly filings, and balancing the checking accounts for four individuals, plus my own business.

I try to do my banking for all these accounts on line to eliminate some of the dangers, but I’m bogged down with mountains of documents.

In my wallet I carry credit and debit cards for each person and Social Security cards for most of them because I need quick access to them, for nursing home administrators, or attorneys, or banks, when I’m trying to make transactions.

Identity theft, in my case, could be disastrous, multiple times over. HELP !

Mike W.

Dear Mike —

No kidding! You need a full-time accountant. I don’t know when you’ll have time to read this book, but you’re getting one.

Gail

Dear Gail,

I desperately need the "50 Ways to Protect Your Identity and Your Credit" to send to my son who is a recent victim of Identity Thief. He's going through hell trying to deal with his stolen identity, teach school and prepare for a series of Madrigal concerts in five cities this summer.

Would you please help him?

A Worried Mom,

Janet C.

Dear Janet —

Happy to help a struggling artist!

Gail

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