Lis on Law: Guarding Against ID Theft

Lis Wiehl

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We’ve all been there — our feet throbbing, hair disheveled and we’ve had just about enough of our nosy co-worker. We can only dream of the day where we lounge in our bathrobes, put up our feet and essentially get paid for it. It’s no wonder that when we see the perky blonde on TV telling us that we can “be our own boss,” we immediately tune in and dream of the good life. But buyer beware — if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

These glaring advertisements with neon letters and dollar signs flashing over the screen rarely pan out. If we really could cash in from the comfort of our living room, wouldn’t we all be working from home? But the thing that is worse than discovering that you’ll actually have to go to the office the next morning, is discovering that your credit card and social security number have been stolen.

Jeff Isaac, legal analyst and “The Lawyer in Blue Jeans,” says these ads are just the beginning of the scam. “Even if you don’t buy what the group is selling, they can simply sell your contact and other information to a list broker, who then sells it to other scammers. All of the sudden, you’re a prime target because you responded to gimmicks.”

With the rise of the Internet, disseminating bogus information to millions of unsuspecting users is easy. The typical profile of a victim who’s most susceptible to these scams has changed very little. The Better Business Bureau says these con artists prey on senior citizens, stay at home moms and people who want to get rich quick!

We have to be hyper-vigilant when providing personal information. Identity theft can occur while standing in line at the grocery store, answering television gimmicks and, of course, online. Cyberspace is simply the newest hub for these scam artists, and this kind of vast audience and anonymity heralds even greater problems. By now, many of us have heard of “phishing” — a term coined by computer hackers to describe surfers who use e-mail to fish the Internet, hoping to hook you into providing logins, passwords and credit card information.

Here’s how it works: the “phisher” impersonates a legitimate company such as your own Internet service provider or financial institution. In the typical scam, an e-mail appears on your screen from a reputable company, and you're told to visit a specific site to update your account.

Three years ago, officials caught an identity thief posing as America Online. The hacker sent consumers email messages claiming there’d been a problem with AOL billing. The e-mail warned users that if they didn’t update their account information, they risked losing their account. The message directed consumers to a link called the “AOL Billing Center.” This so-called billing center looked so authentic; it contained the AOL logo, colors and links to the real AOL web page. But just as fast as you could put your mouse on the link, the scammer hijacked your identity. The Federal Trade Commission eventually hooked the thief, but he’d already used the information to charge online purchases and open accounts with PayPal.

Identity theft is among the fastest and most devastating crimes in the United States. In 2006, more than nine million Americans were the victims of ID fraud. Individuals lose an average of $6,000 — amounting to over $50 billion each year. Identity theft is a crime that blindsides the victim and turns your life upside down.

No one understands this better than John Harrison. A victim of identity theft, his credit record was in shambles and he was subjected to an endless barrage of debt collectors, pension pay garnishments, IRS letters, and heartache. Harrison retired from the army in 1999. Two years later, Jerry Wayne Phillips, a 21-year-old con artist used Harrison’s credentials to go on a $260,000 shopping bender as well as open more than 60 fraudulent accounts.

Phillips was even issued an active duty military ID card in Harrison’s name, complete with his social security number at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It’s still a mystery how Phillips obtained the ID tag, but he wasted no time discrediting Harrison. Harrison’s attempt to regain his identity cost him his job and credibility. Creditors turned on him and banks closed his accounts. Harrison has been battling the situation now for five years and says there’s no good system in place to help victims.

So what can you do if you’re the victim of identify theft? Susan Grant, Director of the National Consumer League Fraud Center says that it’s “really important to avoid being defrauded in the first place.” Grant recommends reporting the fraud to law enforcement, but warns they often don’t take legal action because they don’t have the manpower — and even when they do, they don’t always succeed.

The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 addresses identity theft and attempts to give victims recourse. The Act strengthens the criminal laws governing identity theft. Specifically, the Act makes it a federal crime to knowingly transfer or use, (without lawful authority), the identification of another person with the intent to commit a crime. The Act also addresses the problem of identity theft by focusing on consumers as victims. In particular, the Act provides a centralized complaint and consumer education service for victims, and gives the responsibility of developing this function to the Commission. But these laws should be used in conjunction with one’s own vigilance. Isaac says the “reality is — and people don’t like to hear that usually, it’s not worth the cost unless it’s a class action. Damages and victory are uncertain.”

The sad truth is that if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Most of us will have to earn our money the old-fashioned way: suit and tie — instead of in our underwear next to the television.

Click here to e-mail Lis.

For more information on phishing and identity theft:

Better Business Bureau Report on ID Theft

Identity Theft Resource Center

Federal Trade Commission Statement on ID Theft

National Consumers League Report on Phishing

Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.