Protection of personal information is up to us

The greater Everett community has been all a-buzz this summer with the arrival of a Warner Brothers film crew shooting episodes of "The Fugitive," a CBS offering for their fall lineup. A remake of a 1960s thriller about a man on the run from authorities, the show will star actor Tim Daly in the role of Dr. Richard Kimble.

For those too young to remember the series, the premise of the show is the cross-country journey of a man falsely accused of murdering his wife. Episode after episode, Dr. Kimble changes his identity in an attempt to elude the pursuit of Lt. Philip Gerard.

Although the characters in this made for TV drama are fictional, the ability of real-life villains to assume different identities exists as a threat to everyday people. To avoid becoming victims of identity fraud, consumers must begin aggressively protecting themselves by closely guarding their personal information.

Identity theft isn’t a crime that only happens in big cities to victims of purse- or wallet-snatchings. In fact, criminals can amass huge amounts of debt under an assumed name long before their unsuspecting victims even realize anything has happened. As illustrated in recent Herald news stories, identity theft is on the rise, and can happen even in a close-knit community like Granite Falls, where two individuals have been accused of using stolen identities to purchase and remodel a home along the Mountain Loop Highway. Earlier this month, as prosecutors filed 11 felony charges against the pair, it was revealed that as many as 20 different identities may have been used to obtain a mortgage, finance four vehicles and fill the home with furniture and other big-ticket merchandise.

There are a number of steps that individuals can take to protect their identity from being stolen — with consumers themselves comprising the primary line of defense, at least for now. Awareness needs to begin with the mail, where a few seconds spent shredding or tearing up offers for credit cards and consumer loans can prevent sticky fingers from lifting them out of recycle bins or trash cans at the curb. The same goes for those unneeded bank or credit card statements and ATM receipts, which contain enough personal information for the ill-intentioned to assume an identity through a single piece of discarded mail.

Another potential arena of risk is your social security number. This critical piece of identification ought to be closely held and shouldn’t be printed on checks or given out in retail establishments or over the phone. Your driver’s license is another number that deserves careful scrutiny before divulging. When asked for a piece of personal identification, a PIN or a password, an aware consumer will reply "why do you need it?" and "what will you use it for?" And, protecting your birth date should no longer be considered a vanity issue reserved exclusively for those who feel squeamish about divulging their age — simply refuse to give it out unless you’re sure the person asking has a legitimate need to know.

Unlike a TV drama, the consequences of identity theft are far from entertaining. And, as tends to be the case in the real world, switching the channel to rid yourself of the problem simply isn’t an option.

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