Posters like this have begun appearing in post offices around the country.
By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

If identity theft hasn’t gotten your attention yet, it probably will the next time you go to the post office. The U.S. Postal Inspector’s Office launched an aggressive consumer awareness program this week aimed at preventing the crime. The campaign features “Law & Order” star Jerry Orbach, himself a victim of identity theft, as a poster child for victims. “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone,” says Orbach, in posters that began appearing in all 38,000 post offices this week.

The identity theft crisis has been brewing for years, but attention has been sharply focused on the issue during recent months, with the release of three studies that suggest the problem is much bigger than originally estimated. The Federal Trade Commission estimated in its study that 10 million people were victims last year.

The FTC study indicated that only 4 percent of ID theft begins with stolen mail — a bit of a surprise, since much of the talk about the crime has long focused on pre-approved credit card applications that sit in mailboxes and are an easy mark for identity thieves. Nevertheless, the post office is a central player in nearly every identity theft, says spokeswoman Linda Walker.

“When a criminal commits an identity theft, the mail is normally used in some way,” she said. “When someone opens a credit card account in your name, it’s sent through the U.S. mail. If someone orders merchandise, how is it sent? Through U.S. mail. If someone purchases a cell phone, how is the bill sent?”

That’s why the postal inspector’s office has gotten involved in a public awareness campaign, Walker said.

Along with the posters placed in post offices around the country, 3 million notices will be mailed to consumers at home with tips on how to avoid becoming a victim. Advertisements are also running in major newspapers at 17 cities around the country.

Among the tips issued by the post office — abandon the time-honored tradition of leaving outgoing mail in your mailbox with the red flag raised, Walker said.

“That red flag is a red flag in more ways than one,” she said. “What do you normally put in there? Bills, with checks in them. Criminals know that. ...We recommend take it to your local post office.”

If you can’t kick the habit of letting your mail carrier pick up your outgoing mail for you, at least wait until the morning to place it in the mailbox, she said.

“I go out on Saturday nights and I see all these flags up,” she said. That gives identity thieves nearly two full days to roam the neighborhood in search of documents that make ID theft easy.

“We want to make sure as consumers, that each of us do everything we can to make it as hard as possible for the criminal,” Walker said.

Orbach became a victim three years ago when his Social Security number was posted on eBay by someone selling copies of two of his old acting contracts. He sued eBay, but when the auction site removed the items, the lawsuit was dropped, according to eBay spokesperson Kevin Pursglove. Orbach also had a second bout with identity theft when his wallet was stolen from the set of “Law & Order” and several purchases were made in his name, Walker said.

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