By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
The states of Kansas and Oklahoma rank 26th and 27th respectively in identity theft, and for the 11th year in a row, the crime was the number one complaint nationally by consumers.
To help lower those numbers, the nation’s leader in identity theft is informing and educating consumers about the problem to help them better protect themselves.
Mike Prufinski, senior vice president of corporate communications for LifeLock, said according to the Federal Trade Commission, in Kansas, the biggest problem is credit cards, which is where 50 percent of consumer complaints came from regarding identity theft in 2010. This is a 1 percent increase from the previous year.
“Phone and utilities fraud was about 15 percent, and again, about a 1 percent increase,” he said. “The third one was government documents and benefits fraud, which was 14 percent.”
Prufinski said government documents and benefits fraud saw an increase across much of the U.S., with a 6 percent rise in 2010.
“If somebody uses your Social Security number to file your taxes before you can or applying for unemployment benefits, food stamps, that’s examples of those,” he said.
Because of rises in other areas, Prufinski said identity theft is no longer just about credit cards.
“It’s somebody getting your credit card number and doing these other types of activities that are more difficult to detect and more difficult to fix,” he said. “The perfect example is those governmental documents, benefits and utility stuff.”
Prufinski said consumers need to become more educated about what identity theft is and understand what risks there are for them, as well as their children.
“The last thing is to go out there and do the research to understand that there are things that they can do themselves free or at a limited cost to make it more difficult for someone to go out there and use their Social Security number,” he said.
Prufinski said newer technology has made it easier to commit identity theft.
“The things you love about the Internet are the things you hate about it,” he said. “With the Internet, you can go out there and travel the world. You can get a college education. You can watch videos. You can also buy things on a Web site that you think is real, but it’s not.”
Prufinski said the Internet opens up the world to social networking, and criminals like to invade and watch what people are doing through their computer.
“A lot of technology has made it easier for them, but consumers are getting what they asked for,” he said. “We want a society full of conveniences. We’re the ones that said we want to be able to buy things online by using a credit card or a debit card, or we want to be able to talk to our friends and show our photos without any strong security features.”
Prufinski said another identity theft problem is phishing schemes, generated normally from other countries. In the scheme, a person sends an e-mail to many people, promising them large sums of money in exchange for personal information such as bank account numbers.
“You would think that people would just have the sense to not answer these, but if they did and they weren’t successful, people wouldn’t be doing them,” he said. “When you think that they’re sending out probably 300 million of these e-mails across the United States, you don’t really need to have too many people say yes for you to have a really good day.”
Prufinski said returns of as little as 1 percent can yield enough money to give a person as much as 10 times what they had. He said consumers also need to know about the crime of sniffing, in which a person sets up a laptop in a public place such as an airport, coffee shop, public library or a hotel lobby posing as free wi-fi Internet.
“What you and I don’t know is we go in looking for free wi-fi to hook up our iPhones or our iPads or our laptops to, this individual is seeing everything that we’re doing,” he said. “If we shop online, if we go to our Facebook page, if we MySpace, no matter what we do, this individual is now able to capture our username and password.”
He said many times, people will use that information to post video on a social network page that is likely embedded with a virus.
“Basically, they index your hard drive, so anytime I want to go looking for something on your computer, all I have to do is type in what I’m looking for,” he said. “Could be tax returns. Could be credit card information. Could be Social Security numbers, personal information. If you have a file on your computer that matches that, it could be downloaded to my computer, and you never even knew it.”
Prufinski said yet another problem is recording viruses that allow people to see what another person is typing in from another computer.
“These types of things happen all the time,” he said. “Consumers need to know about that.”
Prufinski said consumers are becoming aware of skimming devices placed in ATMs and used by many waiters and waitresses.
“Now, you’ve got to be aware of things happening on airplanes,” he said. “There was a flight attendant arrested for skimming $400,000 from people she was serving on airplanes. It’s all these type of things that are leading to these numbers.”
Prufinski said the FTC numbers are drastically under reported.
“Even though it says the state of Kansas ranks 26th with about 1,700 complaints of identity theft, the majority of victims of identity theft don’t know to file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission,” he said. “This number could be two, three, four, maybe five times higher than actually is being reported.”
Prufinski said while all people need to be aware of identity theft, much of it is aimed at older people.
“We’ve got this older generation that’s trying to keep up,” he said. “They’re trying to learn this new technology and the things out there that allow them to communicate with the younger generation, and criminals know this. That’s where they’re sending the e-mails.”
Overall, Prufinski said much work remains to be done to lower identity theft crime stats.
“This crime is not going to go away until people finally say I’ve had enough and actually go out and do something to stop it,” he said.