Lober Dobson & Desai LLC
Attorneys at Law
Atlanta | Macon



“Not another pre-approved credit card offer! Just toss it.” How often do we simply throw away a credit card offer, an old paycheck stub or everyday receipts? How many of our online passwords and PIN numbers have not been changed in the past year? How many of us use obvious passwords like birthdates or names of our children or spouse to access online bank and credit card accounts? The list of ways to become an unsuspecting victim to identity fraud is endless. Now add in the fact that we as Asians share our first and last names with at least a dozen others in the United States alone. Harish Patel or Sue Wong are some of the most common names in our communities in this country and make identity theft easier to commit against us.

We often hear about identities being stolen and fraudulent acts being committed in the victim's name, but seldom do we as Asians picture ourselves as being the victims. In recent years, identity theft has affected all types of unsuspecting people, regardless of class or creed. The internet shopper is not the only type of person affected. The fear of having your identity stolen is a growing problem in the United States and abroad as personal information is more easily available and attainable. While there is a very real fear of another person impersonating you and committing fraudulent acts under the pretense of being you, the fear of the unknown hurts our community more than anything. Like most other crimes, knowledge of how to protect yourself and the steps to take if you feel that your personal information has been compromised are the most powerful tools we can have.

Identity theft is not an extremely difficult or complex crime, but it can leave the victim feeling helpless and vulnerable. From something as simple as getting your wallet or purse stolen to illegal tapping of computers that you use, criminals have several ways to acquire personal information from unsuspecting persons. What we do not realize, however, is the extent to which your identity can be abused. Not only can thieves maximize your credit card limits, but they can also open new accounts in your name. They can even rent or purchase real estate in your name and leave you with the debt. Most frightening of all is that they can commit crimes in your name and leave you defending yourself.

In an annual study done by the Federal Trade Commission's Consumer Sentinel, some of the most commonly reported forms of identity theft in 2005 include:

  1. Credit card fraud (26%)
  2. Phone or utility fraud (18%)
  3. Bank fraud (17%)
  4. Employment fraud (12%)
  5. Government documents/benefits fraud (9%)

An example of fraud that is likely to affect South Asians perhaps more profoundly than other groups is identification theft with respect to driving records and other government issued identification. A person victimized by identity theft may not detect a problem for years. Then, all of a sudden, he has an outstanding warrant in his name in several states. During a routine traffic stop, an individual may provide a first and last name and birth date that may closely match another person’s information. The popular name may not be cross-referenced correctly and the result is an innocent "Harish Patel" who has never been outside of Florida having a warrant out for him in six states in New England. The unfortunate reality is that the victim comes to know what has happened only when he attempts to renew his license years later after the damage is done. He soon realizes that another "Harish Patel" lives in New York and has racked up a dozen speeding and driving citations over the years. The "Harish Patel" of New York has purposefully or inadvertently provided his first and last name which perhaps unbeknownst to the police officer taking the report, attaches itself to our innocent "Harish Patel" in Florida.

In this case, the Department of Motor Vehicle Safety checks for the first, middle initial and last name with the corresponding date of birth. If all four of these fields match, they assume with good reason, that they have the right person. However, it is very possible that there is a Harish Bhaskar Patel and a Harish Bhavin Patel both born on the same date. This issue cannot just jeopardize the DMV report but could lead to as much as deportation in the event that the identity has been used for INS fraud. This example can be extended to many other scenarios in which identity fraud can cause problems for unsuspecting individuals.

If you suspect that someone else is using your personal information or identity, there are several steps to take to help protect yourself from further abuse. The first of many steps is to contact the fraud department in any of the three major consumer reporting companies (Experian, Equifax or TransUnion). Simply contact one company as they are obligated to contact the other two and put them on notice. By reporting possible fraud, you will be notified any time there is a change in your credit (i.e. any accounts being opened in your name, etc.).

The next step is to close any of your accounts that you believe have been tampered with. If your credit report indicates an account that you did not authorize, use documentation provided by that institution or an ID Theft Affidavit provided by the Federal Trade Commission to dispute the existence of the account. If you believe your government issued identification has been stolen, you can contact that agency to put them on notice of another individual with the same name and obtain new identification.

Furthermore, you should file a report with your local police department and with the police department in the area you believe the identity theft occurred. When doing this, always ask for a copy of the report so that you can provide creditors with proof that you reported a crime. Along with the police report, you can also file a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The agency maintains a list of theft cases involving identity theft and helps the FTC collect data to better assist you in your claims.

If the situation has escalated and you feel overwhelmed, contact an attorney to assist you in the process of getting your credit report and/or record cleared. This may save you more time, effort and money in the long run.

Be aware of the precautions you need to take to avoid becoming a victim to identity theft. There are simple proactive steps you can take to significantly reduce your vulnerability.

  1. Change your passwords and PIN numbers often. Don’t use obvious passwords like birthdates and names of your spouse, child or pet. Memorize these passwords and destroy papers that contain them.

  2. Regularly check your credit card statements and bank accounts for discrepancies and follow up if you see something incorrect. Also, make it a habit to order credit reports from one of the three major consumer reporting companies - all offer one free credit
    report every year. So, you can order a report from one agency every 4 months to monitor (many states like GA allow its residents unlimited access to ordering reports free of charge).

  3. Never throw away your credit card receipt containing your full account number in public. Take it home and shred it if you do not have a reason to file it.

  4. Shred documents containing personal information instead of throwing them in the trash directly (i.e. pre-approved credit card papers, bank account information, receipts that contain your full credit card number and anything else with your social security number on it).

  5. Do not carry your social security card, passport or extra credit cards with you. Only carry the cards that you actually need and use.

  6. Be sure to have a list of your credit cards and their customer service numbers handy in the event that the card is lost or stolen.

  7. anyone unless absolutely necessary. Only give out such information if you initiated the conversation. Be especially aware of emails requesting such information. If you receive a questionable email, call the institution directly and inquire further.

  8. Provide and clarify your full name when opening accounts and on government issued identification. Your middle name may become increasingly important as you realize there are many others who share your first and last name.

Keep in mind that identity theft is a growing problem in the United States and abroad. As we become more and more reliant on electronic data, we forget that real people exist behind those computer screens and electronic transfers. There are always individuals who are looking for an opportunity to make an easy dollar on someone else's name. Remember to guard that which is most precious to you, yourself.




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