Georgia Watch: ID theft rising

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- Georgia Watch Consumer Outreach Director Ashley Wilson says the consumer advocacy group's mission is simple.

"Our job is to serve as the voice of families in Georgia," Wilson told the gathering of the Dougherty County Rotary Club Tuesday at Doublegate Country Club. "We have more than 2,000 members across the state dealing with issues that are important to Georgia's consumers."

Founded in 2002, Georgia Watch focuses mainly on issues that impact Georgians' wallets and quality of life, such as health care, access to civil justice, energy and utility issues, identity theft, and foreclosure.

Wilson said one of the biggest problems facing the state's consumers today is identity theft.

"It is one of the most pervasive problems we are facing today," said Wilson. "Georgia ranks seventh in the nation in the number of cases of identity theft, with a full two-thirds of those coming, not surprisingly, from the metro Atlanta.

"It can be a mess for the victims, who spend an average of 21 hours straightening out the problems that result."

ID thieves attack from numerous angles, she said.

- Malware programs steal personal data online. These programs climbed to more than 1.2 million this year from 135,000 in 2007.

- 90 percent of malware programs are designed to grab personal information such as Social Security and credit card numbers from online sites that are not protected with spyware.

- Consumers expose themselves to malware by downloading attachments or clicking links in e-mails.

- Thieves find information by looking through the trash, filling out postal change of address forms in the victims name and hacking into online records.

- After obtaining personal information, a thief may commit new account fraud, which occurs when an identity thief uses a victim's name and Social Security number to apply for new credit.

Wilson advised that people check credit reports for suspicious activity, such as new credit card accounts that are opened without their knowledge.

"I encourage people to initiate a 'credit freeze,' " she said. "Credit freezes are three dollars for all Georgia citizens and are free to all seniors over 65 and to victims of identity theft with a valid police report."

Freezes must be requested from all three credit-reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

For more information on credit freeze, visit the organization's website at www.georgiawatch.org.

As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Georgia Watch works to protect Georgia families by developing pro-consumer policies and advocating for the average Georgian at our state Capitol.

Georgia Watch also conducts consumer protection workshops across the state, providing education and assistance to the state's citizens.