In the year 2000, 100,000 people in the United States were victimized by identity theft. By 2006, that number had grown to 10 million.
Federal Trade Commission statistics show that once a consumer becomes a victim of identity theft, the average time spent repairing the problem is between 400 and 600 hours. Two of the three major credit bureaus are now allowing consumers in all 50 states to freeze their credit histories. The move is meant to help consumers guard their credit against identity thieves. But is it enough?
"It's a good step, but it's not the be-all, end-all solution," says Justin Yurek, president of ID Watchdog, an identity theft monitoring service.
Placing a freeze on your credit report locks the data until you give permission to release the data by unlocking your report. But, says Yurek, "Every time you do this it costs money and if you want a credit card or access to credit, you have to unlock it."
More important, Yurek says, is the fact that 70 percent of identity-theft crimes have nothing to do with credit reports. "A thief could steal your wallet with your driver's license in it and commit a crime, open a P.O. box, get a cell phone, put utilities in your name. That has nothing to do with credit."
Most people do not discover that their information has been stolen for 12 months after a thief first uses it. Worse, fewer than one in 700 identity-theft crimes lead to a conviction.
"We need to understand that prevention isn't a feasible concept now," says Yurek. "If thieves want your identity, they'll get it. No matter how careful you are, they could hack into a database, they could physically steal a laptop - there's no guarantee."
Since, as Yurek says, there's no foolproof way to guarantee that your identity won't be stolen, stay alert for signs that someone is using your identity:
-If you fail to receive bills or other mail on time or as expected, call the sender directly. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed the mailing address.
-You begin receiving credit cards you did not apply for.
-You've been denied credit or are receiving less favorable credit terms - a higher interest rate or lower credit limit than you've received in the past.
-You begin receiving calls from debt collection agencies or businesses regarding merchandise you did not purchase.
Services such as ID Watchdog scrutinize customer information and guarantee that if thieves slip something past, the company will fix the problem and help customers regain and retain their identity.
"ID Watchdog doesn't just look at reports from three credit bureaus, we monitor thousands of databases, because only 30 percent of identity-theft victims get hit in ways that show up on credit reports," Yurek says. The service also educates consumers about how their personal information - name, date of birth, Social Security number, phone number and address - show up in databases all over the world, information most consumers just don't have access to.
Further information on identity theft can be obtained from the FTC online at www.ftc.gov. A free trial of the ID Watchdog service is available at www.idwatchdog.com or by calling (866) 416-0783.