Color of Money: A Catch-22 on data sharing

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  • WASHINGTON — In the age of identity theft, we are bound to run into conflicting information about what data we should share with providers, government agencies, and especially strangers.

    Recently, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners cautioned drivers about providing too much information following an auto accident.

    In many cases, the association said, drivers put themselves in jeopardy of being identity theft victims by supplying personal information such as their driver's license number.

    The association has put together a checklist and created a mobile application for iPhones and Androids to help people following an accident. The app is "WreckCheck" and you can get it by going to insureuonline.org. If you can't get the app, you can download a paper version. Neither the app nor the paper checklist spells out state-specific requirements for information sharing.
     
    After I wrote about this issue, I heard from a few personal injury attorneys who told me that in some states, drivers are required to exchange license numbers. In Virginia, for example, drivers involved in an accident are required to provide their names, addresses, driver's license and vehicle registration numbers. Maryland law mandates that drivers give similar information but specifically says, "on request, exhibit his license to drive." You are to do the same for the police investigating the accident.  

    I asked the NAIC about the conflicting information. As a result, they've made some changes and clarifications to their checklist. You can find the new version online now.

    "Of course we urge consumers to follow their local laws," said Scott Holeman, communications director of NAIC. "This is one of the reasons NAIC recommends you always call the police in the event of an accident. They are your first, best resource on the nuances of state law, especially if someone is injured."

    If you aren't sure what's required, you can assume the police can help coordinate the required exchange of information, Holeman said.

    But the larger point is that we still are being asked to voluntarily provide personal information that makes us vulnerable. Identity theft is increasingly becoming not just a minor bother in people's lives but an ordeal. In 2011, identity fraud increased by 13 percent, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. More than 11.6 million adults became victims of identity fraud. A contributing factor was a 67 percent increase in data breaches. Victims of data breaches are 9.5 times more likely to be a subject of identity fraud, Javelin found.

    In the worst cases, people spend an extraordinary amount of time and money trying to clear up the damage when their personal information is stolen. Their credit can be ruined. Sometimes victims are mistaken for the identity thief and wrongly arrested.  
    My father-in-law's Medicare card has his Social Security number on it. And yet the federal government, which issued the card to him, warns citizens, especially seniors, to be careful about sharing their Social Security number.
     
    For tips on how to reduce the risk of identity theft, including those who have to use a Medicare card, go to privacyrights.org and search for "Coping With Identity Theft: Reducing The Risk of Fraud."

    I heard from one reader who was harassed by a driver who had hit her while she was walking in a parking lot.
     
    "In the ambulance, I shared with the police officer my driver's license and provided my telephone number, which is unlisted for professional and personal reasons," the reader said. "I personally did not give any information to the driver of the car who hit me. On the Sunday morning following the accident, the driver called me at my home several times and even offered to come to my home to bring me flowers. Certainly he was expressing concern for me but was also anxious about what the legal outcome would be for him. He was a stranger who now knew where I lived, that I had been seriously injured by his actions, and was distraught."

    The driver had gotten the women's information by looking at the accident report.

    "When he continued to call me periodically, I had to ask his insurance agent and the policeman to communicate the message to the driver not to call me again," she said.

    So we have the NAIC, the standard-setting and regulatory support organization created and governed by the chief insurance regulators in the country, cautioning about giving out too much information. And some state laws that directly require us to do so.  

    Err on the side of caution. Only provide the information that is absolutely necessary or required by law.
     


    Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is singletarym@washpost.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.           

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