Zach Friesen was just 7 years old when his identity was stolen. He had no idea anything was wrong until 10 years later, when a standard background check for a stock clerk job revealed that someone had used Zach's personal information to buy a $40,000 houseboat but never paid for it, ruining the then-17-year-old's credit rating.
"At the time, I didn't even know what a credit rating was," says Zach -- but learning that his had been compromised left him angry and frustrated. Both Zach and his mother spent weeks on the phone with banks, credit bureaus, and the police in an effort to clear his name. On average, victims of identity theft spend from 300 to 600 hours trying to clean up the mess, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center (idtheftcenter.org).
Now a 21-year-old senior at the University of Colorado, Friesen travels to high schools around the country to teach students about identity theft. According to a 2005 survey by the Chubb Group, one in five Americans have had their identity stolen; and in 2006 another 15 million joined them, reports the research firm Gartner, Inc. Though kids represent a small percentage of victims overall, that number is climbing -- from 3 percent of all identity fraud in 2003 to 5 percent in 2006, according to complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). And experts say that figure is likely low, because the number of people who take the step of filing an ID theft report with the FTC is believed to be much smaller than the actual number of victims.
Since then, Friesen says, he keeps a close watch on his bank statements and credit reports, and never carries more than his driver's license and a couple of credit cards. Like most people, he has never been able to pinpoint how the security breach occurred. The causes of most identity theft can't be conclusively traced, says Mari J. Frank, author of From Victim to Victor: A Step-by-Step Guide for Ending the Nightmare of Identity Theft (Porpoise Press) and founder of the Web site identitytheft.org.
Whether it's someone reaching across the Internet or directly into your life by stealing your mail or discarded papers, you need protection. Arm yourself by learning how identity thieves operate.