In case you’ve missed all of the commercials across the airwaves over the past few weeks, there’s a new film that will be in theaters today and its topic is identity theft. It’s a comedy and one the critics are already insisting is a must-see. Starring Melissa McCarty and Jason Bateman, Identity Thief will take viewers through the process of what happens when our identity and ultimately our credit is stolen. Of course, it’s not funny in real life, but these two comedic minds are able to pull it off without getting lost in the overwhelming stress that accompanies these types of crises. And Hollywood’s betting big money on its success.
Money and Fame
Think money and fame can prevent you from becoming a victim of identity theft or other financial fraud? Take a look at a few of the most well known and respected names in Hollywood royalty who have found themselves in the middle of a financial nightmare. A public figure can’t escape it anymore than you or I can.
Ricky Gervais, the genius behind the popular TV show that originated in the UK, “The Office”, barely missed becoming a victim when a caller attempted to make purchases over the telephone in his name. It was a fluke that the businessman who took the call happened to be a fan and knew the distinctive accent was missing. Gervais was lucky, but there are plenty more who aren’t.
Will Smith has got to be the epitome of success – TV, films, music – he’s pulled it all off. Still, in 2009, his identity was stolen by Carlos Lomax. A career criminal, Lomax remains in jail for his bold efforts of stealing from others. It’s not known if he actually gained access to all of his bank accounts or credit cards, but it was certainly enough to get a conviction. And if that weren’t enough, Lomax also stole $81,000 via credit card purchases from another famous Smith. This time it was the Atlanta Hawks basketball star, Steve Smith, who fell victim.
Remember the massive 200 year sentence that was handed down to the man who was able to successfully get a driver’s license and then ultimately a number of credit cards in Tiger Woods’ name? Before he was caught, he managed to rack up close to $20,000 in credit card charges. The hefty sentence was a result of California’s three strikes law. He too had made a career of breaking the law and stealing from others.
Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg both fell victim to the same scam artist a few years ago. The crook had used one of Forbes’ “wealthiest celebrities” lists to determine who was actually richer, and in his mind, an easier mark. Somehow, he was able to gain access to not only Winfrey’s and Spielberg’s (along with Martha Stewart and several more) social security numbers, but he opened a number of accounts – credit cards, banks, fuel cards – in each of their names. He was caught and is also in jail.
Simple, but Effective Solutions
So what happens when a company takes a proactive approach to preventing identity theft? A very simple, though, effective solution has been found by the convenience store chain 7-11. Its fuel pumps have bright stickers on the credit card readers with a warning that if the seal is broken, consumers shouldn’t swipe their cards. It means the machine has been tampered with. Once the stickers have been compromised, a message appears on the sticker, courtesy of special ink and paper, that reads “VOID OPEN”. If a customer sees that, he should report it to the cashier and have his transaction completed inside.
Identity Theft Growing
Identity theft is a growing problem in the U.S. Despite strides made in recent years, the three credit bureaus report a 14% increase in these types of crime between 2001 and 2011. It’s believed once the numbers come in for 2012, it will be even higher.
It’s difficult to rein it in partly because of the lax standards both consumers and businesses incorporate online. Fraudsters are finding new ways of bypassing security measures and to an unsuspecting consumer, one small mistake can cause big problems for months or years. And if you live in the southeast, you’re at a higher risk, though officials aren’t sure why. Florida ranks highest in the country for the number of identity theft cases each year with Georgia coming in a close second.
The IRS estimates that the government will spend more than $20 billion over the next five years to combat fraud used to gain others’ tax refunds. That too is a growing number; in fact, it’s growing faster than other sectors. Officials are worried, partly because it’s becoming increasingly easier to compromise these types of government processes.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau urges consumers to proceed with caution. If you’re asked to give out your social security number, ask why. Only in very specific instances should you let go of that kind of information. Also, put into place proper safety mechanisms when it comes to your smartphone. There are now apps and programs that allow you to wipe your phone clean remotely. Consider investing in it if you use your phone to handle financial transactions. Also, never toss, give away or trade in computers and phones until and unless you’ve scrubbed the hard drive or erased the memory. Otherwise, you might as well be giving your PIN number to anyone passing on the street. Also, it’s a good habit to get into checking your privacy settings on social networking sites.
Be sure to add your name – and everyone in your family – to the do not mail list that the government maintains. Visit consumer.ftc.gov to do this. Here’s a tip many may not even consider. You should avoid giving out your ZIP code to retailers at the register (and there are many retailers who are now asking for that information). Once your zip code has been revealed, the retailers can then begin looking for the rest of your address and once that’s done, they can send unwanted mail – including credit card applications – that can be stolen from your mailbox. It’s just another way of covering the bases – and a good one, too.
Do you ever Google yourself? You should and you should also set up an alert that will let you know something triggers a search engine with your name. If your name does pop up somewhere, you can contact the website and ask to have it removed.
Finally, avoid using the same password on all of your websites. In fact, avoid using similar passwords. If you’re using “johnsally123” on one site and it’s hacked, and your other passwords are “johnsally1234” or something similar, it’s just a matter of time before you’re left vulnerable. This holds true on all of your often-visited websites, not just credit cards and banks.
And as always, if you feel like your information has been compromised, contact your bank and card company immediately. The sooner you get those bases covered, the better the odds are of minimizing the hack.
So are you planning on seeing Identity Thief this weekend? If so, let us know what you think of it – funny or no? Realistic or typical Hollywood brouhaha?