More than 10 million Americans fall victim to identity thieves each year, the Federal Trade Commission estimates, a number that has apartment firm owners and managers searching for ways to prevent identity theft from troubling their businesses and their residents.
That's why AvalonBay Communities, a 158-community firm based in Alexandria, Va., is examining its processes "sideways, upside down, and inside out" to make sure it is doing everything it can to prevent the theft of data that can be used to steal residents' identities. "Identity theft is one of those items that has recently been focused on in the media," says Laura Novak, senior director of risk management. "We are certainly not immune to it."
Like AvalonBay, apartment firms around the country are evaluating how they access, store, and dispose of sensitive tenant data like credit reports and rental applications that contain Social Security numbers, addresses, and other personal information that an identity thief could use to convince a bank to lend money or another apartment firm to grant a lease.
In addition, they're considering how to handle the breach if identity thieves steal their records. And they're learning how to avoid begin taken in by potential tenants who aren't who they say they are.
A few years ago, apartment firms and other businesses got a push from the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act. Now, it requires businesses to destroy consumer information rather than simply tossing it in the trash for so-called Dumpster divers to retrieve. That means property managers must shred credit reports, erase computer files, and likewise obliterate other documents that contain personal consumer information about their tenants when the information is no longer needed.
"Consumer privacy and identity theft prevention are becoming the new fair housing," says Jay Harris, vice president of business services for First Advantage SafeRent, a resident screening and risk management company in Rockville, Md. "The enforcement is increasing."
And apartment firms are responding. Harris points to properties that either offer or encourage residents to buy renters insurance that will help them recover their good credit standing should they become victims of identity theft–an effort that can take hundreds of hours. Others have become more selective about which employees are allowed access to resident files, while some are even monitoring which eyes see tenant data and why.
Some of Harris's clients, he says, no longer accept copies of credit reports, opting instead to learn only if the potential tenant meets the requirements for residency. "This is a good protection against identity theft," says Harris, "because the raw credit report is not on the property."