To the editor: The desire to escape the hustle and bustle of work and the modern world is a common reason for people to go voyaging. For many voyagers, however – even those on small, simple boats living on modest budgets – the “real world” will intrude. An element of the “real world” that all voyagers need to consider very seriously is the issue of identity theft. Not because voyagers are more at risk, but because their ability to deal with and correct the problem is severely compromised.
How big a problem is identity theft? According to research from Gartner Research and Harris Int-eractive, there were more than 7 million victims in the United States in 2003. The victims spent an average of $1,400 and nearly 175 hours to correct the problem. Type the words “identity theft” into an Internet search engine like Google, and you will get more than 29 million hits. Unfortunately, the problem is growing rapidly.
Now consider the results of an identity theft from a voyager’s perspective. You have carefully managed your finances and set up your only credit card for an automatic monthly payment. All your fixed expenses run through this card. You sail off to a remote area of the Bahamas and you do not see mail in five months. Your communications are via Bahamas pay phones and SSB radio. Your mail is being held at a mail-forwarding service. Meanwhile, an ID thief has gotten a hold of your Social Security number and the PINs on your credit card and done the following: He’s opened six credit cards, purchased an automobile and secured a driver’s license all in your name. He’s defaulted on loans, and wracked up several speeding tickets and a DWI on your driver’s license.
You return from the Bahamas, get your mail forwarded and are confronted with overdue notices on all the credit cards, a repossession notice for the car, and a series of arrest warrants for the DWIs and speeding tickets. Your credit report is in the tank. Far-fetched, maybe, but within the realm of possibility. Even if only one aspect of the above scenario came to pass, the results would be a huge problem to correct.
As soon as you become aware that you have been victimized by identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests you do the following:
1. Report the fraud to all three credit-reporting companies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. There are specific forms you will need to fill out.
2. Contact all the creditors – by phone and in writing – with whom your name has been used fraudulently. The FTC Web site has forms for this (www.consumer.gov).
3. Report the ID theft to your local police and sheriff’s departments, and get a copy of the report.
4. Get replacement credit cards and cancel the fraudulent cards.
5. Contact a lawyer.
And the list continues.
Obviously, accomplishing all these tasks from a foreign country can be daunting at best. So what is a voyager to do? The same common sense rules that apply to the landlocked apply to voyagers. Never give out your Social Security number unless you are 100 percent clear on who is getting it and why. Be very cautious giving out credit card, drivers license and passport numbers. Be very cautious about e-mails, even ones that look legitimate, that ask for personal information. E-mail scammers have created very legit looking Web sites that mimic the IRS, eBay, Amazon and other popular Internet sites. The growing number of voyagers with onboard e-mail makes this issue especially relevant.
Many credit card companies now offer some limited form of ID protection. The monthly fee and level of service varies, so you need to contact your credit card company for details. For some voyagers, this may not be adequate, as continuous monitoring, e-mail notification and restoration services are typically not included.
For more enhanced protection, several companies have now developed products and services solely to assist in monitoring ID theft and restoration if a theft happens. A few to consider:
€. ID TheftSmart (www.idtheftsmart.org). This firm uses what it calls “licensed investigators” to “do the legwork and paperwork for you.”
€. ID Theft Shield (www.prepaidlegal.com/idt/referrals). The ID theft component of the offering is called ID Theft Shield and is particularly well suited for voyagers. It includes continuous monitoring, e-mail notification (an important feature for many voyagers), as well as identity restoration features. With ID Theft Shield, “a trained expert will take the steps to restore your name and credit for you.” In addition, Pre-Paid Legal offers what can be best described as a legal HMO. You pay a monthly fee and Pre-Paid Legal provides you with a comprehensive list of legal services.
€. The Identity Theft Resource Center (www.idtheftcenter.org) provides help to victims of ID theft and information for those looking to protect themselves. Voyagers should consider the viability of this “do it yourself” approach when sailing far from home.
€. The official Web site of the FTC has very good information on this problem (www.consumer.gov/idtheft). As with the Identity Theft Resource Center, the assumption is that you will have the time and resources to deal with any issues yourself.
Before you cast off for that remote tropical island, you should consider if you have taken the appropriate security precautions. Plus, all voyagers should consider the realities of dealing with an identity theft while sailing outside the United States and protect themselves accordingly.