Identity theft perpetrators are becoming more sophisticated and skilled at stealing other person's identities, warns Harry Short.

Complaints about Social Security number abuse are rising.
Watch out for the "dumpster divers." They are busier than ever stealing your personal information from discarded credit card receipts, utility bills, letters and any other information you throw in the trash. This information, along with stolen Social Security numbers, birth certificates and bank account numbers, has fostered major identify theft crimes in the United States.

Identity theft perpetrators are becoming more sophisticated and skilled at stealing other person's identities with stolen Social Security numbers. The Social Security Administration received more than 30,000 complaints concerning the theft/misuse of Social Security numbers in 1999. The number of complaints rose to 26 percent over those reported in 1997, and 36 percent above the number reported in 1998.

You're in trouble if your Social Security number and birth date get in the hands of these culprits. They assume your identity, set up bogus bank accounts, obtain credit cards, rent homes or apartments, apply for loans, go on spending sprees and some have even declared bankruptcy. Guess what, you're left holding the bag, your credit and reputation is ruined, and it may take years and thousands of dollars to restore your credit rating.

A man in California gave his drivers' license and Social Security number to rent a motel room. Shortly thereafter, a crook obtained his birth certificate from his home state and made nearly $100,000 in purchases on credit cards he opened in the victim's name. The victim found out he had been cheated when he was stopped for a traffic violation and was arrested on a warrant for a crime he knew nothing about. The victim spent several thousand dollars trying to salvage his credit but ended up on the short end of the stick because the credit agencies will not take the information off his record.

To help stop this type of crime, legislation is in the mill to prohibit credit bureaus from selling Social Security numbers and birth dates, require the card issuers to provide a free credit report yearly to each cardholder, and notify any victims of identity theft. Because it may take victims months to discover that they've been swindled, an additional safeguard to prevent stealing through the mail is to verify whether the cardholder requested his card be sent to a new address. If passed, the legislation will allow the Social Security Administration to impose a $5,000 for the misuse of Social Security numbers.

Some states have taken action to stop this type of crime. A representative from Oregon is working on legislation to make it illegal for credit card providers to sell personal information such as Social Security numbers. In Arizona, it is a Federal crime with fines and up to 15 years in prison for stealing someone's identity. This type of crime is growing and many legislators feel more responsibility must be placed on the credit bureaus and merchants.

In the meantime, keep track of personal information that can be used by a criminal to steal your identity. Never throw receipts, personal data or bank statements in the trash. These items are money in the pocket of the "dumpster divers." For a few dollars, you can purchase a small shredder to use at home to destroy your discards. The Federal Trade Commission has a hotline (877-438-4338) to report identify theft crimes. Or check its Web site,