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Re-establishing your identity
5 Tips: Getting back on your feet after a disaster.
September 7, 2005: 5:17 PM EDT
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Hurricane Katrina victims may find themselves with little more than the clothes on their back. Starting over is challenging especially without any documents proving your identity. It may be difficult getting your local banker to recognize you.

In today's 5 tips we'll give you some ideas on how you can re-establish your own identity.

1. Tap your cash

If you don't have an ATM card or your bank has been destroyed, don't panic. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has encouraged banks to lend a compassionate hand.

Your first step should be to contact your own bank or another bank branch. To find out what banks are open and what services are available, you can either go online to or call 1-877-ASK FDIC. You can also use this resource if you have questions about your banking records.

It's likely that even if you don't have a photo ID, that you'll be able to cash checks and take out a limited cash amount from other banks. But you may have to think creatively about proving who you are.

"Empty your pockets. Even if you just have a utility bill, a library card or a business card, it could help you re-establish your identity," says Janet Kincaid of the FDIC.

If you are currently displaced and living with a relative, bring them along to vouch for you. If you do have your ATM card, you'll be able to use any banks' machine to get cash without a penalty fee. Most banks in affected areas have waived their fees.

Banks are also increasing daily withdrawal limits and making it easier for people to open checking accounts without the usual documentation. Former Federal Trade Commissioner Mozelle Thompson said that banks play a key role in helping people re establish themselves since they have an extensive database.

2. Get your social security benefits

If you depend on social security benefits, you will need to contact the Social Security Administration to verify your social security number. It's not always necessary to have your social security card with you to verify your identity. There's a form that people must fill out with their background information.

"That's how we can identify you," says Mark Hinkle of the Social Security Administration. "If you're trying to steal identity, you'll only have one or two pieces of information," he says.

To get your social security check, go to the nearest office of the social security administration. To find those locations, call 800-772-1213. You'll be able to get emergency payments if necessary.

Right now there are over 40,000 agents on the ground around affected areas helping people, according to Hinkle. The U.S. Postal Service have set up PO boxes for people to receive Social Security checks in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In addition, efforts are underway to establish a postal presence at the Houston Astrodome for evacuated Louisiana residents. For more information, log onto

3. Grab that plastic

If you find that your credit cards were lost or left behind, your best bet is to call the bank that issued the card and get a new one as soon as possible.

Many issuers are bending the rules and waiving payments, late fees and overlimit fees. In many cases, like at Bank of America and Chase, there won't be any negative indications on your credit report for 90 days. And if you need fast credit, you'll be able to get credit line increases more quickly.

If you have lost your credit cards, call the company to get new cards. You can contact Chase at (800) 945-2006. Once you are settled, then we ask that you call creditors and tell them how they can reach you, says Tom Kelly of Chase.

Discover Card is also waiving its late fees and minimum payments for 60 days. Call 1-800-Discover if you need a new card. If you have lost your Visa card, the number is 1-800-VISA-911.

If you had an American Express card, you can call their Emergency Card Replacement at 1-800-964-8542. MBNA also has developed special services for those affected by Hurricane Katrina. They can be reached at 800-421-2110.

With personal documents and credit cards floating around, Authorities are warning people in the Gulf Coast that they should be on guard against identity theft.

One of the steps people can take is to put a fraud alert on their credit report, says Linda Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center. Call TransUnion: 800 680-7289, Equifax: 800 525-6285 or Experian: 888 397-3742.

4. Get your ID

Most Americans use their drivers license as their primary ID, says Jason King of the association that overseas the individual Departments of Motor Vehicles. "This will be very problematic," he says.

Louisiana's Department of Motor Vehicles asked all of its offices to be sympathetic to people who have to get photo identification. Remember that the DMV already has your photo in its databank.

If you are a refugee in Louisiana, you'll be able to got to the DMV office and get a new license free of charge before you leave. If you are outside Louisiana, you'll need to fill out an application and the DMV will retrieve your information and compare your signature electronically for verification.

Michelle Rayburn of Lousiana's DMV says the turnaround should be about 72 hours. Go to for more information.

5. Stay out of the red

Hurricane victims with mortgage payments can breathe a bit easier, at least for the next two months or so. Some mortgage lenders like Chase and Bank of America are deferring payments for up to 90 days. These lenders are also getting rid of late fees and protecting credit reports from negative credit for three months. People who use AmSouth will be able to get out of paying mortgage insurance for a limited time.

While customers may still be responsible for monthly payments with GMAC Mortgage, the lender is offering a moratorium on all foreclosures in affected areas and scrapping late fees. GMAC Mortgage has also set up a hurricane relief line for customers at 877-941- 4622.

For more general information on what lenders are doing, check out the American Bankers Association at

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to  Top of page

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