Protect yourself against identity theft

September 2, 2005

Here's how to guard against the nation's fastest-growing white-collar crime.

Internist Paul Phillips of Johnson City, TN, was in the middle of hospital rounds when he got a call from the FBI. "They said they needed to meet with me right away," Phillips (not his real name) recalls. The agents were investigating a man who had duped a few local doctors by taking out loans in their names to buy a 45-foot, $249,000 powerboat and to lease two cars, one of which was a $60,000 SUV leased in Phillips' name.

"I received a number of calls from the car company until it was cleared up," says Phillips, "and I had to go over my credit report to make sure there weren't other fraudulent loans or accounts." The theft was traced to an incident around three years earlier, when Dr. Phillips had applied for disability insurance. The insurer contracted with a lab to obtain blood and urine samples. Apparently, the lab technicians, who went to the doctor's house to do the tests, obtained-and later misused-some of the personal data on his application forms.

Tucson ED physician Keith R. Kaback was "more careful than the average guy" when it came to giving out his personal information. Even so, a thief opened a Sears card in Kaback's name and charged $3,300 for a diamond ring and a camera. Luckily, Sears' fraud unit called to verify the charges, and the doctor wasn't held responsible.

An identity thief typically applies for loans and new credit cards in another's name, and also makes purchases using the real cardholder's existing cards. Often, the victim doesn't find out about the theft until he applies for and is denied credit. The price of having one's identity stolen is tallied in more than dollars, phone calls, and letters to amend erroneous credit records, though; there's also considerable mental anguish, which only increases if the matter becomes public.

Physicians are particularly at risk

Exactly how do these identity thieves succeed? One of the most common methods is by gaining information from stolen or lost wallets, according to the FTC Identity Theft Clearinghouse. Others include stealing mail, such as pre-approved credit card offers, new checks, bills, and the like, and "dumpster diving," the descriptive term for rummaging through trash to retrieve financial paperwork.

Then there's computer-aided theft. Someone with legitimate access to an organization's computer network may steal personal information that's stored on it (called database compromise). Or the thief may hack into the system, uncovering passwords and breaking into electronic files where private information is available. This can allow him to steal thousands of records. For instance, the admission records of nearly 5,000 heart patients were downloaded by a man who hacked into the computer network of the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle; similarly, crooks broke into a computer at the Center for Sleep Disorders laboratory at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis and accessed the personal information of 7,000 patients.

"Doctors are more susceptible to identity theft for a variety of reasons," explains California-based attorney Mari Frank, former identity theft victim and founder of Identity Theft: Prevention and Survival ( http://www.identitytheft.org). "They have high incomes as well as good credit, which makes them appealing targets, plus their personal information is readily obtainable in the records of hospitals and insurers, where many instances of identity theft take place."