It affects every age group, from young adults to middle-age moms to senior citizens.
And it cuts across every income bracket, from the wealthy to the middle class to the poor.
The scourge of identity theft and fraud has steadily grown in recent years both on a national scale and locally. It’s often perpetrated by unseen criminals, and one crack in the armor can lead to a stolen identity and lots of frustration for the victims as they try to straighten things out.
However, local law enforcement officials said that while there is no way to guarantee that your identity will never be compromised, there are some ways to safeguard your personal information and make it tougher for thieves to steal it.
See tips about how to protect yourself against identity theft at the end of this article.
Sgt. Dan Bickers with the Floyd County Police Department said simply paying close attention to your financial records and regular bills will help you catch any potential fraud or abuse.
“We tell people to always look out for suspicious activity, and if you notice any, make contact with the listed creditor to verify that it is not a mistake,” Bickers said. “We also encourage people to get free credit report checks from the three major credit reporting agencies and scan them for any information that doesn’t look right.”
Get your credit report
According to a Web site run by personal finance guru Dave Ramsey (www.daveramsey.com), consumers should obtain a copy of their credit report annually from the three major credit agencies (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax), because you are allowed one free copy every year from each of those agencies. The reports are not automatically mailed — consumers must request them.
The Dave Ramsey Web site recommends that consumers go online to www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228 to order the free annual report. Ordering it directly from the agencies or through any other sites offering free reports could lead to an unexpected fee.
If you feel like there is an item on your credit history that is not yours and may be from identity theft fraud, you need to immediately notify the police, Bickers said.
“If you have the paperwork documenting the possible fraud or ID theft, come to the police department and speak to an investigator, and having all your information together enables us to get on it quickly,” Bickers said. “Have your bank statements, card information and a credit report if you can.
“And most financial institutions require you to file a police report if you are reporting fraudulent activity on your account, so it’s an important step.”
Crooks showing resourcefulness
Joe Costolnick, a detective with the Rome Police Department, said criminals are using every method imaginable to try to obtain people’s personal information.
“We have heard cases of everything from online scams to re-routing mail to another address to making fake phone calls claiming to be a creditor or a business,”
Costolnick said. “One of the easiest ways criminals are getting information is from those fake phone calls, and people need to remember that any reputable bank or company won’t have a problem with you not providing information over the phone — that’s not how legitimate businesses conduct their work.”
Costolnick and Bickers said that in this day and age consumers need to be very active and vigilant when it comes to protecting their personal information.
“You need to treat your personal information as extremely sensitive material,” Costolnick said. “Don’t use your Social Security number or any personal information as a screen name or password for online accounts. Double check any site where you conduct online transactions, and don’t ever give out any personal information over the phone for any reason unless you are initiating the call to a company.”
Bickers said even checking to see if you are getting your bills and financial statements at regular times is important.
“Be sure and get all your receipts, don’t leave them at ATMs or gas stations or businesses, and don’t leave your mail in the mailbox if at all possible,” Bickers said. “Last month we had a case where an adjacent county recovered a stolen vehicle, and inside it they found lots of stolen mail from all over Floyd County. There were bank statements, phone bills, credit card information — we have boxes that we are still returning to consumers.
“If you feel like you are not getting certain statements or bills that you expect, contact the bank or provider.”
Seniors are often targeted
Costolnick said many victims of identity theft and fraud unfortunately have been senior citizens, who are sometimes more trusting if a person contacts them allegedly representing a bank or a business.
“If you have an older relative you are concerned about, you may want to offer to take over some of their transactions to protect them,” he said. “Sometimes our seniors are more susceptible to giving out their information when they shouldn’t. And make sure they are diligent in checking their personal information on a regular basis.”
But it’s not just those who are careless with their personal information who have had their identities compromised.
It can happen to intelligent, conscientious citizens who are well aware of the dangers — just ask Floyd County Superior Court Judge Tami Colston.
She said several years ago she was notified by a bank in Birmingham, Ala., that noticed some suspicious activity on her account and called to let her know she may be the victim of identity fraud. After checking into it, Colston found somebody had apparently stolen her identity.
It even happened a second time when a woman got a credit card in Colston’s name and charged more than $25,000 worth of items at several stores in Atlanta.
“When you first find out, you’re almost in a state of panic because you don’t know how bad it is. You just have this helpless feeling because you don’t know what to do,” Colston said. “It is a scary thing, but it’s not too hard to deal with if you take the right steps.
“People should immediately contact law enforcement, the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs, and their banks and credit reporting agencies,” she added. “When you notify your creditors, get in touch with their fraud departments and they will work with you. But be sure to get a police report filed, because often times they can’t help you unless you’ve done that.”
Colston said since dealing with those identity theft instances, she has been much more aware of guarding her personal information.
“Since those episodes, I really keep a close check on things,” she said. “I don’t put things in the trash that have any personal information — those need to be destroyed. If I go to a store and they ask for any personal information, I decline to give it to them. And I pay cash when I can — that’s how I prefer to make purchases — because cash is a safe option.
“ID theft or fraud can really happen to anybody,” Colston added. “And after something like that happens to you, you think about everything you do.”
If anyone feels like they have had an instance of identity theft or fraud, contact local police and visit the Federal Trade Commission Web site at www.ftc.gov/idtheft and the Georgia Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs at www.consumer.georgia.gov.
PROTECTING YOUR IDENTITY
Law enforcement officials and government Web sites recommend several steps you can take to help safeguard your personal information and reduce the chances of identity theft or fraud.
Shred financial documents and paperwork with personal information before discarding them. “Thieves have been known to go through trash looking for personal documents to steal information,” said Sgt. Dan Bickers with the Floyd County police.
Protect your Social Security number — don’t carry your card in your wallet or write the number on checks or personal documents. “Treat your Social Security information as extremely sensitive material,” said Joe Costolnick with the Rome police.
Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you know whom you are dealing with. “Phone fraud happens a lot — a person calls to say they are updating or verifying personal information, you give it to them, and they have the details to compromise your accounts,” Bickers said.
Never click on links sent in unsolicited e-mail; instead, type in a Web address you know. “Be cautious if you ever enter a name or password to log into a site and it says to re-enter or verify, especially if it’s a financial site,” Costolnick said. “And double check any site where you conduct online transactions.”
Don’t use an obvious password like your birth date, family names or digits to an account or your Social Security number. “Be careful with any business you do online, including social networking sites,” Costolnick said. “Don’t use personal information as screen names or passwords. Remember, it’s your identity, and it’s up to you to protect it.”