Thursday, January 13, 2005

Who's climbing your family tree? (Identity Theft)

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Who's climbing your family tree?
By John C. Murray/ Timelines
Wednesday, January 12, 2005

There are many interesting inhabitants of Family Trees, and there are many more trying to either join them or take their place - the latter usually have an ulterior motive in mind.

If you don't think that could happen, then you have not been paying attention, and that is exactly why there are so many identity thieves looking for a limb to climb out on to take your place and become YOU.

Don't think it couldn't happen to YOU? Well! read on and be sure to lock the barn door before the horse and more than likely the whole barn is stolen.

Let's start with the miss-step many people take with the precious bits of information painstakingly collected about their ancestors. Except for your prior generation, your ancestors are pretty secure on the limbs of the Family Tree, but YOU and your prior generation are being violated from many directions every day by someone either trying to steal your identity, your name, your wealth, your reputation and/or your credit rating, and that is only for starters..

As you researched and recorded your family history you, without knowing it, have created a potential time bomb. Therefore, prudence should be your life saver.

I am sure that you just as I continually receive reminders, from our financial institutions, credit card companies, department stores and even the U.S. Post Office, that we should be careful to avoid Identity Fraud.

So how does this effect the family genealogist who proudly wants to share his Family Tree; with colleagues, the butcher, the baker and a Web Site Data Base somewhere in the world, who can't wait to expose all the genealogical facts - (usually for their profit), about each member of YOUR Family. - Kind of scarey isn't it?

In some of my earlier Timelines columns, I tried to advise you to be careful to secure your Family History, without causing alarm. of a mounting problem of Identity Fraud. Now let me give you a prime example of how this all works out to your detriment.

"This is not "What's in your Wallet" but who may be in your bank or credit card account and how, without knowing it you have given someone the keys to your kingdom. Do you realize that every time you call a bank to get the status and specifics about your accounts you are asked two things; the Account Number and a password your Mothers' Maiden Name. The account number is pretty obvious, it's on the face of a check or a deposit slip that you carelessly dropped in the Super Market parking lot. But the Mothers, Maiden Name may be found in one of those World-Wide Data Bases, that you should have never given to them - it is a critical piece of information that could put you into bankruptcy, lose your credit rating and cause a lot of grief to make things right. It could take years to correct and money for lawyers' fees.

When you give away your personal information about your family to a web site, like full names, dates and place of birth and addresses; you have given the Bad Guys enough information to get a duplicate copy of your BIRTH certificate - and become another You. The sad part is that you won't have a clue until your world starts to collapse. The state of Ohio Department of Health has decided to restrict access by confiscating collections of vital statistics currently available in libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies and even on the Internet. Sadly this trend, along with escalating fees, is making family history research more difficult.

There was a Web-site Administrator for a tele-management firm who inadvertently posted the names, addresses and Social Security Numbers of about 2000 students on the Web. The company, which was not alone in the instances of errors, has removed the information and luckily no record of fraud has appeared. Even trusted institutions make mistakes.

How many times have you been asked to show your Drivers License at a store when you made a charge purchase or a bank to cash a check? Your Social Security Number, date of birth, address, your signature and other information is now in the hands of a strangerwho may not be a nice stranger.

A few years ago, our family vacationed at the Outer Banks in North Carolina. It was my treat and we all went for dinner to one of the many seafood restaurants along the main access road. (It turned out to be an opportunity for me to learn a lesson I would like to pass on to you): When I gave my credit card to pay the bill for dinner, the waitress looked at the card and said " Gee my boyfriend has the same name as yours" And of course I asked where he was from and she said he was a local fisherman - just happy chit chat. When I paid the bill I took the signed receipt and put it in my pocket, but when I got to the car I realized that the waitress had not given back my credit card. When I went back inside and asked for the "card" the waitress said "Oh I had it in my apron and forgot to give it to you". I can't be sure it was an error on her part, but all the "What if s" went through my mind. I do give her the benefit of the doubt, but I can't get out of my mind that someone with a name the same as mine could be piloting a shiny new fishing boat or better still a state of the art yacht on the Outer Banks of North Carolina thanks to a forgetful credit card holder; who happened to have been served by his girlfriend in a seafood restaurant on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

The up side of this story is that when I renewed my drivers license, I asked for a new license number other than my Social Security Number. And when I renewed my credit card, I substituted my first name with two initials rather than my given name. I doubt that there is a fisherman out there on The Outer Banks of North Carolina who is called J.C.

Your Social Security number is a critical self identifier that should only be used for medical or other legal documents, never to be given over the telephone or the Internet. Guard it religiously and sleep well at night.

With the evolution of the home computer, it has become a tool for the genealogists; where all their family history, directories with all your family and friends E-mail, telephone numbers, correspondence, investment information and other personal files are deposited. Then one day a newer and more up to date computer with more' function and capacity comes on the market that you just have to have. The "old" computer ends up in the local land fill waiting for someone to pick it up and enjoy all that personal information that you neglected to delete from it. This could be a tragic mistake. Before you discard or give the computer away delete all your personal files, especially Family History and Genealogy records.

A word of advice:

On those snowy winter days when you can't go to a Red Sox or Patriots game, sort out that pile of old bills, bank statements, checks, paid credit card bills department store statements, medical and prescription information and any piece of paper that has critical or personal information that could be used against you - and SHRED IT. The other miscellaneous paper can go to be recycled. But do it now. Account numbers. phone numbers, medical information, documents containing personal information that should be protected.

In 1994, Winn Schwartau wrote a book with a chapter called "Personal Privacy-identity theft." It was an early alarm of a growing problem. To learn more about this go to his Web-site genealogy.about. com/b/a/060509.htm. Or visit the CardCops web-site to see if your credit cards are in their Data base of possible fraud targets and information about credit card and e-commerce fraud.

Enough heavy stuff - Have a healthy and secure New Year.

Genealogist Jack Murray, is an author, and Facilitator for the Genealogy programs at the Gerontology Institute at The University of Massachusetts. His monthly column " Timelines-Small Steps into Your Family History" appears monthly in the Community Newspapers in Massachusetts. You may reach him for comments at his E-mail address,

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