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AT&T's Not-So-Subtle Pretext

Months after phone carriers were widely criticized for handing over consumer phone records to the Feds, AT&T (NYSE: T  ) is suing to protect customers' privacy. Better late than never, eh?

Well, actually, it's better than that. AT&T's suit claims that roughly 25 data brokers accessed customer records without authorization through a scheme known as "pretexting" -- derived from the practice of using false pretenses to steal personal data.

It's big business, apparently. As recently as February, members of the Federal Trade Commission testified before Congress about the problem. Commissioner Jonathan Leibowitz said at the time that pretexting had become far too prevalent, and that the agency was investigating data brokers, apparently of the same sort that AT&T is suing.

For its part, AT&T says pretexters may have victimized as many as 2,500 customers, though no Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, or similarly sensitive financial, credit or identity information was accessible. Furthermore, all of the potential victims have been notified, and their account records have been frozen to prevent further tampering.

That's a relief. And yet I find it eerie that I had no idea what pretexting was before the AT&T case came to light. It's even more disturbing that, at its website, the FTC draws a link between some forms of pretexting and identity theft, which privacyrights.org says has cost as many as 14 million Americans $3.8 billion in out-of-pocket expenses since 2001.

Over the past year and a half, there have been several high-profile personal-information break-ins involving ChoicePoint (NYSE: CPS  ) , Reed Elsevier (NYSE: ENL  ) , Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , Retail Ventures' (NYSE: RVI  ) DSW Shoe Warehouse, and, of course, the Veterans Administration. Accordingly, I feel compelled to repeat our best advice for dealing with a potential ID heist:

  • Get out the word. Start by contacting the three major reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and Trans-Union. They can freeze your account to prevent further damage.
  • Track your spending. A money-management program such as Intuit's Quicken or Microsoft's Money can help you check credit transactions daily or even hourly. Make records of all fraudulent charges.

And finally, if you're the paranoid type, hire a virtual security guard. Credit-monitoring services are abundant, but they can't do much other than show what's been stolen. Other services, such as LifeLock, take the more useful step of allowing you to freeze your credit files on demand.

Surely I could include more tips here. But you may be better served by my Foolish friend Dayana Yochim, who recently wrote a report on how to prevent ID theft and permanent credit damage. Download the free report today.

Money issues keeping you up at night?Get help with 30 days of free access toMotley Fool GreenLight. Every issue is jam-packed with money-saving and moneymaking tips.

Microsoft and Intuit areInside Valuepicks, while Bank of America is anIncome Investorpick. You can check out our entire suite of newsletters by clicking here.

Fool contributorTim Beyersthinks identity crooks ought to be locked up with the murderers. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. Get the skinny on all the stocks he owns by checking Tim's Foolprofile. The Motley Fool'sdisclosure policyis never subtle.


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Tim Beyers
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Tim Beyers first began writing for the Fool in 2003. Today, he's an analyst for Motley Fool Rule Breakers and Motley Fool Supernova. At Fool.com, he covers disruptive ideas in technology and entertainment, though you'll most often find him writing and talking about the business of comics. Find him online at timbeyers.me or send email to tbeyers@fool.com. For more insights, follow Tim on Google+ and Twitter.

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