Names: Were You Born with a Higher Risk of Identity Theft?

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identity theft and common names

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was a smart fellow, but he never imagined that one's name could be a tool used to commit fraud and create a nightmare for the victim. Identity theft experts report that a person's name can make him or her an attractive target of identity thieves — or an unattractive target, depending on the commonality of the surname. Thieves prefer the easiest methods to commit crimes, and common names such as "John Smith" or "Eric Johnson" are attractive because there are so many John Smiths and Eric Johnsons out there. For example, consider that credit reporting agencies have a difficult time keeping one John Smith's credit information and history separate from all the others. It's common for people with good credit to have their credit ratings sullied by people with the same name who don't manage their credit well. This is especially likely to happen if people with the same or similar names live in the same area. In most cases, it's simply the credit reporting agency making an honest mistake.

There's nothing honest about how an identity thief chooses victims, though. When looking at a list of names in a phone book, online or anywhere else, he or she will definitely choose common names precisely because they're so hard to distinguish from each other. This makes it easier for the thief to commit fraud — and for longer periods of time. It also makes it devilishly difficult for victims and investigators to sort it all out. In addition, people with common names tend to have similar e-mail addresses. The more sophisticated identity thieves use software to generate common e-mail addresses for phishing scams. Thus, people with common names can have crimes committed in their names for a long time and never even know about them until they receive court papers or police arrest them.

Making matters worse, some victims' family members who have the same name will steal their identities. Police know that criminals will occasionally use a sibling's or other relative's name when arrested so that the crime doesn't go on their records. The same holds true for identity thieves. If a namesake aunt, grandparent, or nephew has the very same first and last name, it's much harder for victims and fraud investigators to sort it all out.

Whether or not you have a common name, it's your responsibility to take steps to protect your identity and your creditworthiness. One of the most effective steps you can take to thwart identity thieves is enrolling in an identity monitoring service.

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