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Do all you can to thwart identity thieves

A couple from Plymouth made the news last week after a judge awarded them $850,000 in damages against mortgage scammers who stole their identity, wrecked their credit rating, gutted their finances and turned their lives into a living nightmare.

The sad part is the couple will likely never see a dime of it because the scammers don’t have that kind of money to pony up.

The couple didn’t do anything wrong. A shady real estate firm stole their identity and used the husband’s name to make phony transactions on two over-appraised homes in the Twin Cities, pocketing the commissions, fees and kickbacks from others involved in the scheme.

It was a devious plot that shows how far scammers will go to rip others off at the expense of innocent victims.

Identity theft, of course, is not limited to the confines of big cities. It happens right here in Alexandria and other small communities as well.

“Identity theft can happen to anyone and can have devastating financial results,” said Minnesota Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman in a news release issued as part of National Consumer Protection Week. “The threat can come from high-tech skimmers that capture your credit card information to scammers who dumpster-dive for your personal information. Fortunately, Minnesotans can protect their information and financial well-being.”

The commerce department offers these steps for consumers to protect themselves from identity theft crimes:

Before revealing personal information, find out how it will be used. Ask whether it will be shared with other companies. Many businesses will provide you with their “privacy policy.”

Never give personal information over the phone or e-mail. Most businesses that need bank account information, passwords or credit card numbers already have all the information they need and will not call or e-mail a request for more information.

Check your credit report once a year. Credit reports show your credit history, including the number of loan requests and whether it’s for credit cards, auto loans or mortgages. Make sure the report is accurate, and write a letter noting any mistakes. There are three major credit bureaus that provide credit reports for a nominal fee, and there may be variations in each report: Equifax, 1-800-685-1111, Experian, 1-888-EXPERIAN, and Trans Union, 1-800-916-8800.

Pay attention to billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if bills don’t arrive on time.

Take your receipts. If a store payment is made by credit card, some receipts list the full card number. Do not dispose of the receipt in a public place.

Have new checks delivered to the bank.

Use passwords whenever possible. Avoid using passwords that contain easily available information, like your mother’s maiden name, your birth date or the last four digits of your Social Security number. Use a different password for each account. Do not store written passwords in purses or wallets where credit cards are kept.

Minimize the amount of personal information you carry. Do not store Social Security cards, passports or birth certificates in purses or wallets.

Write down credit card names and numbers and store them in a safe place. It’s important to cancel your credit cards immediately if they’ve been stolen.

Guard the mailbox from theft.

Tear up junk mail. If you receive pre-screened credit card or mortgage offers in the mail, tear them up if you decide not to accept the offer. In a method called “dumpster diving,” thieves scour trash bins for personal information.

Reduce the amount of junk mail you receive. To opt out of receiving pre-screened credit card offers, call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688).

Only use secure Internet sites for e-commerce. Look for a small yellow “padlock” in the toolbar and “https” in the web address.

It is important to simply know who you are dealing with. Do not give out personal information over the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact.

Alexandria Echo Press