Identity theft grows nationwide

Kari Hirsh, a junior at the George Washington University from Great Neck, N.Y., said she has learned to always rip up her shopping receipts.

Recently, Hirsh received a phone call from her bank about charges on a credit card totaling nearly $800. But Hirsh said she did not make these charges, nor was her actual credit card stolen.

“I really have no idea what happened,” she said. “I just got a call from a bank one day and found out that someone stole my identity and used it to apply for a credit card and then charged things under my name.”

Hirsh wrote a letter to the credit card fraud department and was not held accountable for the purchases made using her name.

“I’ve heard about these things but I never thought it could actually happen to me,” she said.

Identity theft, according to the Office of Inspector General, occurs when someone uses someone else’s personal identifying information without any knowledge or permission. The information can be used to obtain credit cards, wireless phones and services, loans and mortgages, jobs and to commit fraudulent and criminal acts leaving the naive victim responsible.

Analysts say the growth of the Internet and digital finance, expanding consumer credit worldwide, varying law enforcement on the local and federal levels and the changing regulations governing the credit industry are factors which have helped identity theft become a an easier crime to commit.

In 1998, Congress made identity theft a federal crime prompting the Federal Trade Commission to setup a victim assistance center one year later.

According to a recent survey by the Federal Trade Commission, more than 10 million Americans, including 500,000 young adults, were victims of identity theft compared to a half a million in 2002. Experts said they think the increase in the amount of identity theft victims to continue.

From 2002 to 2003, crime rates for identity theft and fraud targeting college students increased more than 80 percent than that of the general population. Nearly 90 percent of identity theft and fraud cases at universities occur unbeknownst to the victim for several months or years in some cases.

College students are easy targets for identity theft according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit group which helps victims, consumers, legislators, the media and law enforcement officials understand the crime and communicate about it.

The ITRC said students may not monitor their credit card bills closely to verify expenses and purchases, which can allow the criminals to go undetected for a long time.

In addition to credit card bills, college students are concerned about thieves getting a hold of social security numbers. Many use their social security numbers on their drivers’ licenses. Almost half of all college students have had grades posted by social security numbers, according to the Office of Inspector General.

“Within the university, identity theft prevention is at best a ‘porous’ filter based entirely on chance and good will,” said the ITRC’s Web site. “Far too many persons, including other students, have access to personal data file, therefore continuously tempting nefarious persons to execute an identity theft on an unsuspecting student.”

Many colleges and universities use students’ social security numbers as identification numbers because it is easier and less costly than giving people randomly generated numbers.

“It’s a lot easier to match all of the different parts of an application file to a number rather than a name, especially more generic ones,” said Victoria Millet, a freshman admissions counselor at University of Houston. “We don’t force people to supply their social security numbers but it makes the matching process easier for everybody.”

Millet said that while most students provide their social security numbers willingly, others are more hesitant in fear of identity theft.

While University of Houston has never had a problem with identity theft, Millet said they shred all papers as a precautionary to thwart possible thefts.

Michael Oster, a high school senior in Brookline, Mass., said he is concerned about identity theft, especially now that he is applying to colleges.

“At first, I felt reservations about giving out my social security number to the College Board and various colleges,” Oster said. “However, what scares me more than identity theft is a college mixing up my application because I did not give enough identifying information. I guess if I’m going to trust a college with my education, I should be able to trust it with my social security number.”

Oster also said that he elected to have a randomly generated number on his driver’s license instead of his social security number.

Tom Lekan, head of security for KeyCorp, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services, says in a company press release that buying a paper shredder, to shred financial information, and unsolicited credit card offers, which bombard students, is one way they can protect themselves.

Additionally, Lekan recommends students take extra caution in not leaving checkbooks, credit cards or mail lying around dorms or shared living spaces and making sure to carefully read over all credit card and bank statements. Students should only order merchandise online through secure Web sites and make sure that they install and update virus protection programs on personal computers.

Students should also never carry more than a single credit card for planned purchases and only a few checks, not a full checkbook, with only initials printed on them instead of full names.

Lekan also said students should make two copies of personal information cards that may contain social security numbers, like student ID’s, drivers’ licenses and health insurance cards, and leaving one at home and bringing the other to school.

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