Identity theft hits close to home

TheftSecurityCredit and DebtInterior PolicyPolitics and GovernmentLos Angeles Times Columnists

Now it's my turn to be a statistic.

Not that kind. I'm still here and writing. So far, anyway. Let me check my in-box -- nope, no pink slip.

So where was I? Oh, right. A statistic.

Add me to the thousands of victims of identity theft (313,982 reported last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission). Although in my case, it's still potential identity theft, and I'm spending a lot of time and money to keep it that way.

Last week, someone drilled the lock out of my mailbox and stole what was inside: the usual magazines and fliers, and a financial statement.

Last year, I bought the locking box because of mail theft. Cops had stopped a truck loaded with stolen mail nearby. A thief swiped an unsolicited preprinted credit-card-with-checks envelope from a neighbor's box and went on a spending spree.

Now my mailbox is gaping open like Jerry Lewis' jaw. The irony is that I am pretty scrupulous about the personal numbers I flash around. I do no online banking -- zero. My online shopping is confined to airline tickets, on a separate credit card. I pay cash for gas and everyday shopping. I was flabbergasted when a kid in front of me at Starbucks paid for his $1.45 tea with a debit card. That is just wrong.

Even the Bush White House didn't do as much shredding as I do.

So here all my precautions get undone by a thuggish break-and-enter mail theft. It has meant hours on the phone. I called the Postal Inspection Service, the CSI of the USPS, to report the break-in. "We've been getting so many reports about mail theft," one woman commiserated. I called my local post office to talk to the manager and to stop home mail delivery.

I called my credit card registry for one-call card cancellation. I called the credit union and the American Express credit monitoring service I'd signed up for a while ago. I went to my bank. I called Social Security, but they don't take reports on these matters. Only in extreme cases can you change your Social Security number -- like going into the federal witness protection program.

Then, misery loving company, I wanted to see how my misery stacked up, so I called the guys who know.

Jonathan Fairtlough is assistant head deputy of the high-tech crimes division at the L.A. County D.A.'s office. Years ago, identity fraud wasn't taken too seriously. Now California has "some great laws," he tells me.

But we're our own worst enemies at protecting our credit. "People tend not to like security measures," Fairtlough explained. When a clerk asks to see ID with a credit card, for instance, we complain, and the stores stop asking. "Sometimes," he said, "our desire for convenience makes it easy for thieves to be able to steal from us." Ask me, ask me!

There are slicker means of identity theft than mailbox break-ins, Fairtlough said. Skimming devices slipped into debit and credit card pay points at gas stations, or even in bank ATMs, snag your account and PIN. The thieves make fake cards and clean you out.

At the Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Bob Berardi is part of the identity theft detail. He apologized if he was talking too much -- "I'm Italian" -- but he had a lot to say.

"It's very hard for most people to understand how devastating this can be. ... The psychological effect stays with you forever. Someone has burglarized you, taken something from you, forced themselves into your life, and you have no idea what that impact is going to be, today, tomorrow or down the road."

Some matters are out of our control. Ask the poor clients of a Corona del Mar mortgage broker whose files ended up sitting out in the open at a recycling center last month -- Social Security numbers, tax returns and all.

Berardi suggests you use your ATM card as a credit, not a debit, card. That keeps your PIN from thieves. Make sure your computer security software is up to date. Don't fall for scams; that e-mail that looks like it came from your bank probably didn't. Pretend you're Oliver North and shred everything. Checking your credit is a wearisome task, but do it. I'll be doing it probably every week now -- not for three months but for a year or more, because, as Fairtlough told me, thieves will wait until your vigilance slackens.

In the meantime, you business people and bureaucrats of the world, if someone purporting to be me tries to buy a Hummer, or if my name shows up on a passport in Peshawar -- well, that is just so not me. Patt Morrison: Accept no substitutes.

Identity theft website page at www.ftc.gov.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

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