Northwest NEWS

July 23, 2001

Features

Identity theft law gives consumers new rights and options

by Christine Gregoire
   Attorney General of Washington
   It's almost like starring in your very own science fiction thriller. You wake up one day with bills for cars you don't remember buying, trips you don't remember taking and long-distance phone calls you don't remember making.
   The phone rings constantly with calls from collection agencies claiming youowe thousands of dollars you never spent. When you stop by the grocerystore, your debit card and credit cards are refused. And you can forgetabout them taking your personal check.
   It's a frightening scenario, and sadly it's not just a story cooked up inHollywood.
   Just ask any one of the estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people - one per minute - who become victims of identity theft each year.
   Figures like that are what prompted me to ask our State Legislature to pass the nation's toughest identity theft law earlier this year. That law goes into effect July 22 and will give citizens in this state unprecedented tools for dealing with the devastation of identity theft.
   The new law is based on the experiences and frustrations of people like Mill Creek's Jenni D'Avis. Two years ago, D'Avis got a late payment notice for a Chevy Suburban she'd never seen, let alone driven off the lot.
   That was just the beginning. After spotting her Social Security number on a class list at a community college, an identity thief racked up $72,000 worth of bills in D'Avis' name, destroyed her previously spotless credit record and turned her into a full-time detective. She left nursing school so she could track down the phony charges and clear her name. D'Avis isn't alone. Identity theft has become the top consumer complaint in the nation.
   The average identity theft victim spends 175 hours over 23 months and $808 to resolve problems related to identity theft. The cost to businesses may be even steeper, and unfortunately, we all pay the costs in higher prices.
   The rapid rise in identity theft shows no sign of slowing. This month the Social Security Administration issued a warning to senior citizens about a hoax designed to get them to turn over their personal information. Some 29,000 seniors have fallen prey so far, responding to fliers posted in churches, nursing homes and activity centers.
   The fliers promise increased Social Security benefits or $5,000 in slave reparations. To get the extra money, seniors are told they must send in their Social Security numbers, copies of their birth certificates and driver's license numbers.
   But it's all a lie. These federal programs don't exist. The seniors who respond will only see the destruction of credit records built with years of hard work and conscientious budget management.
   And it's not just seniors who risk having the bad guys get their Social Security numbers. We all carry these important nine-digit numbers, along with addresses and other identifying information. Bank account numbers gleaned from checks or credit card offers left in the mailbox are just as appealing to these thieves. Each of us must take steps to protect our personal information.
   But if your best efforts fail, Washington's new law is here to help. Now you won't have to run to every distant place in the state where someone has fraudulently used a credit card in your name.
   You can make one report, either in your home jurisdiction or anyplace the fraud has occurred. Then send that police report to the three major credit reporting agencies along with a request that they block adverse information caused by the identity theft from your credit report. Under the new law, they must honor that request.
   When the person who stole your identity is convicted, prosecutors can ask the judge to issue a Court Order Correcting Public Records. This will help you correct and re-establish your credit in the long-term.
   The new law also allows you to put your fingerprints on file with the Washington State Patrol as proof that you are who you say you are. You can use this to get information about transactions made in your name from merchants. And finally, you can limit the number of calls you receive from collection agencies.
   You can get more information about the new law by visiting the Attorney General's web site at http://www.wa.gov/ago/consumer or by calling the AG's consumer line at 1-800-551-4636. I urge everyone to learn about the new and important rights this law gives you and to help us curb the disturbing rise in identity theft.
   The Legislature has passed the law. Now it is our responsibility to use it.
   Attorney General Christine Gregoire is serving her third-term as Attorney General. As part of its many official responsibilities, the Office of the Attorney General enforces consumer protection statutes and provides information on consumer rights.
  
  
  
   Cheryl Reid
   Public Affairs
   Office of the Attorney General
   (360) 586-4802
   cherylr@atg.wa.gov