By ROBERT PIERCE
• Daily Leader
It is the fastest growing crime in the United States, and it costs consumers and businesses billions of dollars every year.
The chances of being a victim of identity theft are higher than those for being involved in a violent crime, having a heart attack or even a car accident.
Cherrie Miller of the Seward County Sheriff’s Department wants to help detour identity theft and help people to detect and defend against it.
Miller said while seniors are targeted for identity theft, anyone can become a victim. She added thieves are not afraid to get their hands dirty.
“They’ll dig through people’s trash, so I encourage people to shred important information,” she said. “Be aware of where they’re keeping their social security number and make sure they keep it safeguarded.”
Miller said many times, a person who has become a victim will not know for some time, and at times, they do not find out until they apply for credit or buy a car.
“Things start showing up on your credit report,” she said. “They see these fraudulent accounts on there that have been turned over to collections.”
Miller said when a thief steals information and uses it to get credit or a job, a person may not find out for a while because the thief will likely not have the bills sent to your home address.
“They’re going to make up an address,” she said. “Most of the time, those addresses are going to be bogus addresses. The person who becomes the victim is not going to know for a while.”
Miller said giving out information such as a Social Security number should only be done when applying for credit or a job.
“Don’t give the stuff out freely,” she said. “Think about the stuff. Find out if they’re legit. One thing I encourage the seniors to do is to research the people who are contacting them for money.”
Miller said this likewise includes making pledges and donations before doing some research.
“Find out some information about the company or the person who’s wanting pledges, donations or charity,” she said. “Make sure it’s legit, and don’t give out personal information.”
Miller said many thieves run lottery scams telling a person they have won a certain amount of money. Victims are told to put the money in the bank, wire some of the money to the thief and keep the rest.
“Once the money is wired to someone in those kind of scams, it’s very hard to trace,” she said. “You can’t get that money back. It’s pretty much gone. The banking institution also becomes a victim. When they go in to check things, everything looks legit.”
Miller said banks will call to verify that the money is in the correct accounts, and after a five-day process, the funds often come back insufficient.
“That money’s already been withdrawn, that person’s gone, and they’ve moved on to another bank using another name, another address and so forth,” she said.
Miller said consumers also need to be aware when purchasing items online.
“Be really careful when they’re making their purchases over the Internet,” she said. “Make sure when they’re using passwords for stuff to not make it an obvious password. Make it something that nobody’s going to know about you. Make sure they keep personal information in a safe place.”
Miller said the Federal Trade Commission has stated on average, it takes more than 400 hours to correct one person’s credit history after they have become a victim.
“That’s a lot of man hours with a lot of people working on that,” she said. “The Federal Trade Commission is also an advocate for victims. You have to file the report with a local law enforcement agency.”
Miller said once a report has been filed, the FTC will become an advocate to help regain credit history and identity.
“You’re probably not going to see your money again if you’ve been scammed on money, but it’s going to be recorded and it’s going to be traced,” she said. “They’re going to be looking for correlations to see how big a scam this really is. There’s thousands and thousands of dollars out there that are being affected.”
Miller said today’s technology has made it easier to commit identity theft, with schemes such as phishing and skimming. Phishing involves going online to send e-mails from a non-existent financial institution or company to get an individual’s personal information. Skimming involves acquiring a person’s debit or credit card number with a special storage device.
“They’re little hand held things,” Miller said. “If you’re at a restaurant and a waitress walks off with your credit card, she could have one of those in her purse and go over there and swipe the card and go run your tab and bring your card back to you. She has what she needs. She has your debit card information.”
Miller said thieves will often change a person’s address, and she advises people to make sure they receive billing statements in a timely manner.
“Someone could’ve went in and changed your address with a change of address form that can easily be picked up at the post office and have your mail sent to them,” she said. “They can start taking over your identity.”
Miller said identity can also be obtained through traditional methods such as stealing a wallet or losing a wallet.
She said it is estimated that 80 percent of victims of identity theft do not report the crime. This, she said, is because for long periods of time, the person may not know they are a victim yet.
“I want to encourage people to check their credit history on a regular basis,” Miller said. “Go over it thoroughly and make sure there’s nothing out of the ordinary, that there’s no discrepancies, that the credit information is on there is their credit. That’s their mortgage, that’s their car. Be aware and stay on top of their credit information, who they owe. Just pay attention. Be vigilant and protect themselves.”
Miller said if this is done, errors will likely be caught within 30 days rather than months. She said people should also close any accounts that have been tampered with or established fraudulently.
“The credit card companies are really good when it comes to fraudulent accounts,” she said. “They will help you.”
Miller advises everyone to keep documents and records about everything.
“File a police report and report it to the Federal Trade Commission,” she said of any unusual records. “It’s really important that they follow through with those things.”
Chances of being a victim of...
o Violent crime – 1 in 5,000
o Heart disease – 1 in 2,600
o Car accident – 1 in 130
o ID theft today – 1 in 6
o ID theft in the next five years – 1 in 4
SOURCE: Seward County Sheriff’s Department