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Consumer Archive

Consumer

Government websites breeding ground for ID theft

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WASHINGTON (1/9/08)--From the girl next door to famous football stars and politicians, finding their Social Security numbers (SSNs)--if you wanted to--isn’t hard (Washingtonpost.com Jan. 2). Criminal and civil cases and land records, available on government websites, often include SSNs. And charging a fee for access to some sites isn’t stopping criminals from obtaining the coveted numbers. Federal courts have banned SSNs from appearing on public documents since 2001, and some states have passed laws or created rules keeping types of personal information from being filed with courts or government agencies. But that doesn’t take care of records filed before the laws and rules took effect. The Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C., estimates that 8.3 million Americans were identity theft victims in 2005, the most recent data available. Though you can’t control what’s available in public documents, you can take steps to safeguard your identity, according to the Credit Union National Association's Center for Personal Finance:
* Only give out your SSN when necessary, and only carry your Social Security card in your wallet if you’ll use it that day. * Know whom you’re dealing with in person, on the phone, or over the Internet. If you’re not certain of the reputation, don’t give personal information. * Be suspicious of anyone calling or e-mailing you and asking for personal information. Your financial institution already has this information on file. * Don’t disclose your SSN on checks, as club membership numbers, or as general information. * Order a free credit report once a year from each of the “big three” credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) by visiting annualcreditreport.com or calling 877-322-8228 toll free. * Cross-cut shred papers that you no longer need and that contain personal information.