Ohioans should protect themselves from identity theft

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 3, 2004

Identity theft is a growing problem in today's "information society." It's not uncommon to hear reports of individuals who have been victimized by this 21st Century crime.

According to a 2003 Federal Trade Commission survey, more than 10 million Americans have reported having their identity high-jacked.

In days of old, the bad guys wore black cowboy hats and wielded guns to steal from their prey. Identity thieves can do much more damage to our personal lives - without a gun and most times without our knowledge.

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An identity thief can take your very own personal information and use it to make your life miserable.

By obtaining personal information, such as your Social Security number, an identity thief has hit the jackpot.

With this nine-digit number, a cunning identity bandit can access not only your wallet, but also unlock the combination of the safe that holds a goldmine of information.

This information can in turn be used to open new credit card accounts, open new bank accounts, take out unauthorized loans, gain access to medical care, get cell phone service and even be used as cover if the perpetrator is caught by authorities.

Needless to say, the consequences of identity theft are devastating.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates these types of crimes cost $50 billion a year, needless to say the countless hours of one's personal time to clean up the mess.

Given the severe consequences of identity theft, I'm proud my office has been working cooperatively with other state agencies to take steps that will protect the personal information of millions of hard working Ohioans.

You may not know it, but as the Auditor of State, part of my responsibility is to issue checks and payments on behalf of all of state government. My office issues more than 7 million checks every year.

Working with several other agencies we are removing personal information - such as Social Security numbers and bank information - from all of the checks, pay stubs, and payment information we distribute.

The largest population of Ohioans will notice the difference next January as they await their personal tax refund check. We're working with the Ohio Department of Taxation to remove Social Security numbers from the approximately 3 million income tax refund checks that will be issued next year.

We are also removing Social Security numbers from some 1.5 million payroll statements issued to more than 60,000 state employees every year.

Additionally we are removing Social Security numbers and bank information from over 500,000 Medicaid payments, vendor payments, and reimbursement payments.

While these seem to be small changes, we feel they will have a significant impact for many individuals who do business with the state or are expecting some form of payment from the state.

Other steps you can take to protect your identity:

4Release Social Security numbers only when absolutely necessary or required by law.

4Do not throw out credit card statements, bills, insurance papers, or bank statements where a criminal could retrieve them from the trash.

If you must throw them out, first shred or burn them.

4Never give out personal or financial information over the telephone to anyone who calls you to solicit a purchase or donation.

4Thoroughly review your credit card statements, bank statements, utility bills, and insurance bills and statements for any unusual activity, purchases, or charges

No doubt, information is a valuable commodity.

In this day and age, information truly is power.

My office is taking these steps because we feel they are necessary to better protect the identities of hard working Ohioans.

As former Ohio Attorney General, I worked to help enact legislation to make identity theft a crime in Ohio. Now, as Auditor of State, I'm pleased to be able to take further action to protect Ohioans from having their personal information pilfered to line some thug's pockets.

It's good government.

It's the least we can do.

Betty Montgomery is Ohio's Auditor of State.