Guarding Your Money and Identity: Part Two

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Millions of people are victimized by online fraud or identity theft. Mario Armstrong offers advice on what to do if your identity has been stolen. Armstrong covers technology for Baltimore-area NPR member stations WEAA and WYPR.

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ED GORDON, host:

NPR's Farai Chideya joins us in the studio today for the second half of our conversation about online security. Farai.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Thanks, Ed. Well, yesterday we talked to Mario Armstrong about the first issue here, which is exactly what does it mean to have your identity stolen? He offered some tips for protecting your identity when you're online.

GORDON: You know, what's interesting, Farai, we should note that often, people don't even realize that they've been compromised.

CHIDEYA: It's absolutely true. And there are these things called spyware programs. They unknowingly are downloaded sometimes when you go to these shady sites. So today when we pick up this conversation with Mario, I asked him, `Who should you turn to once you realize your identity has been stolen?

MARIO ARMSTRONG (Tech Expert): Number one, contact your bank. Let them know that this fraudulent activity has happened. Immediately contact one of the three credit reporting agencies, Experian, Trans Union and Equifax. These credit reporting agencies are very critical to your credit history and applications, maybe for a new car, for a loan or for a mortgage. And then lastly, contact the FTC. That's the Federal Trade Commission, and they can do investigations for ID theft. They normally tend to pursue larger, more sophisticated fraudulent cases, but they do monitor identity theft crimes of all levels in the hopes of kind of putting the pieces of the puzzle together and maybe discovering patterns and breaking up these larger identity theft rings. So when you log on to the ftc.gov Web site, you want to look for the identity theft affidavit and fill that form out completely, with everything that has happened to you fraudulently. And then also, look at their online complaint form if you need to make any complaints about any retailers or transactions that have taken place.

CHIDEYA: Who is responsible for fraudulent charges? If somebody charges up your credit card or your bank account, who's responsible for that money?

ARMSTRONG: Ultimately, you, as the individual, are responsible for the transaction. It's upon you to prove that the transaction, whether it's something that happened to your banking institution or whether something that happened to one of your credit cards, is fraudulent. You have to prove your case to that body. Now with that being said, creditors I've talked to and credit card agencies I've talked to, they are more willing and understanding. Look, identity theft is running rampant. It is two to three times higher online than it is in the offline world. So they clearly understand that this is a problem and that innocent people are becoming victimized. So it's much easier to deal with, but you still need to prove your case.

CHIDEYA: And finally, how can you clear up credit problems resulting from identity theft, if someone, in fact, made some charges and you just didn't notice or you weren't really on top of making sure that your credit report was clean?

ARMSTRONG: There is a new Web site that is coming and is available in several states already called AnnualCreditReport.com. This is a centralized site for all three reporting agencies and it's an effective tool for fighting identity theft. It allows you, the consumer, our listeners out there, to get your credit report once a year for free. So you want to stay tuned to that Web site and see if it's available in your state.

One other thing that I haven't mentioned that is really key is to alert the police in your city. You may need to report the crime to the police departments where--if there a crime had actually occurred, maybe your purse was stolen or wallet was stolen, and make sure the police report--this is important--lists all fraudulent accounts, give as much documented information and get a copy of that report and also send that to your creditor. So it's a lot of work if you think you've been victimized, but it's well worth it to get your identity back and get it clean.

CHIDEYA: Those are words to the wise from Mario Armstrong. Thanks, Mario.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ed, as you can see, it's really up to the consumer to take care of his or her credit. All of these issues about online security are really up to you to stay on top of.

GORDON: Hey, Farai, yesterday you told us that you'd been a victim of identity theft, and my mother, some years ago, had her ID stolen, while not online; someone had taken her SS number and opened up a number of accounts, and we found out later. And it was such a headache to try to clear everything up. How did that work for you?

CHIDEYA: Ed, I was one of the lucky ones. You know, I was able to go to the bank, and even though I was broke for a little while because my money was tied up, I didn't lose a penny in the end. But let me tell you, the average victim spends about a hundred and seventy-five hours and 800 of their own dollars resolving identity theft problems.

GORDON: Yeah, easily, and it's not an easy thing always to clear up. Farai, we appreciate it. Mario Armstrong, we should note, covers technology for Baltimore area NPR member stations WEAA and WYPR, and he spoke with our own correspondent, Farai Chideya. Thanks again, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, Ed.

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