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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Katrina and Potential Identity Theft

We stayed quiet this past week in the aftermath of Katrina. I felt it was time to take a backseat to this natural disaster of epic proportions and let the bloggers who could, provide online aid and assistance. We’re back now, and the emphasis is on the numerous ways your personal data can be breached and you could fall victim to identity theft from the storm.

This is directed not only to residents of the New Orleans area, although one might wonder if they are even connected to the Internet, or if they care about cyberspace at this point, but to anyone doing business with a firm located in the disaster area. We’ll start with…what kind of personal information is in their files relating to your household?

As an example, you could have just moved to Arizona, selling your home in New Orleans. Local mortgage offices are one of the largest repositories of personal data in the country with everything from your IRS returns to your complete credit report. There are also records in the realtor’s office that sold your home. Most of these records are on paper and could have been strewn anywhere in the disaster zone. And then you might live in Vermont and have your life insured by a New Orleans company or have your auto insurance with a large firm that has regional offices in the area.

Of course, the banks have a carload of personal information if you bank and do financial investments in one location. Hopefully, most of this data is computerized—although there is always the paper trail used for input—but this isn’t even secure from determined looters and ID thieves.

If one is able to break into the Tucson, AZ, CardSystems Solutions computers and access 40 million debit and credit-card accounts, they are probably qualified to mount an assault on unmanned equipment, possibly unsecured, definitely not protected, and physically steal the data, no matter what form it is in. Folks, this is just how organized identity theft is, and my perception is that the planning phase began about the time Katrina passed over Florida into the Gulf and began to gain strength heading toward the Big Easy.

The last collection facility I can think of right now that could be effected in the disaster area is the smaller, local credit bureaus used regularly by the realtors and mortgage companies. A treasure trove of private information is here just like it is in the big three: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. If the mortgage company pulls your credit report, it is probably produced at least once on paper.

Just where is all this paper or other structures of data now? The obvious answer is, I do not know, but suspect that at least some of it is in the hands of some pretty sophisticated data thieves. If I am wrong, I apologize for being the alarmist, but doubt if this is an inaccurate assumption. Some may think it is farfetched but so did we, when the bad guys were getting our private information from ChoicePoint, LexisNexis, TimeWarner, Bank of America, and the list goes on.

So what do we do about it? In Louisiana and Texas, you can freeze your credit report so that no transactions can take place without your knowledge. Go to for instructions on how to follow this procedure, and all the states where it is available. It is not offered in Mississippi or Alabama. Louisiana allows you to do this without any breach of your personal data; Texas requires that you be an identity theft victim already. My gut feeling is there will be some waiving of the latter with the credit reporting agencies in response to Katrina’s havoc.

Otherwise, systematically check your credit report in stages that will thwart the ID thieves, starting with your FREE report. They are available in all states now. Request the first report within the next couple of weeks. Get the second, which you will have to pay for, thirty days later. Wait another thirty days for the third. This is only if you are affected in some way as mentioned above. Go to for instructions and each paid report will cost $9.50, regardless of the credit bureau you use.

You can also call a toll-free number: 1-877-322-8228 for the report.

The local, state or federal authorities do not have the time or resources now to help in this matter. You must bear the burden to protect yourself from identity theft. If you haven’t already accessed your free credit report, your investment is only $19.00, an amount well-worth spending to prevent thousands in legal fees to get your personal identity back.


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