May 03, 2016 03:02PM
● By Dia
By Gina Tagliarino
Picture this scenario. You receive a phone call from a number you don’t recognize. The caller is sent to voicemail, and upon playback, you hear a friendly yet unsettling voice inquiring if you’ve opened a credit card account at their department store recently. Only problem is … you haven’t.
Could someone be trying to steal your identity? More than one in four people have experienced identity theft, according to MSI International. It’s a crime that cost Americans $16 billion in 2014, according to a study by Javelin Strategy and Research.
If you’re like local identity theft victim, Jessica*, or most people for that matter, you’ll probably chalk this up as a scam, or at least a clever way to get you to sign up for a credit card once you return the call. Unfortunately, this time the phone rang again. On the line was Jessica’s bank, now asking if she had opened not one, but five additional credit cards with various merchants recently.
“I was furious,” Jessica recalls. “In less than 24 hours, the fraudster(s) had opened or attempted to open 18 different accounts and charged more than $10,000 using my identity. Some were done online, some in the stores and some charged to my existing store accounts.”
A Crime That Hits Too Close to Home
Frightening scene, but this couldn’t happen to you, right? Consider this: Between 2014 and 2015, identity theft rose by 47 percent nationally, and Texas rose from tenth place to eighth place on the Federal Trade Commission’s list of states with the highest per-capita identity theft complaints.
Bringing it even more local, Southlake ranks 28th place in Credit Donkey’s Safest Cities in Texas 2016 study, compared to our neighbor Colleyville’s first-place standing. What’s more, the crime has no age biases. People young and old are impacted by identity theft.
Southlake Police Chief James Brandon says Southlake’s identity theft problem isn’t necessarily a unique one, as it’s striking victims across the country.
“Identity theft cases are on the rise nationwide, and have become one of the most common ways that someone is victimized,” Chief Brandon explains. “If one looks at the trend on a regional, state or national level, the numbers are increasing year to year.”
Southlake Mayor Laura Hill agrees. “Identity theft has unfortunately become the new normal,” she says. “It is frightening to think how many people I know that have either been affected personally or have a friend who has been affected.”
According to Southlake Police records, 184 identity theft cases were reported in the city in 2015, and 37 reported just in the first two months of 2016. But what constitutes an identity theft case? And could you be considered a victim?
“Identity theft is generally understood to fall within the Texas penal code section 32.51 Fraudulent Use or Possession of Identifying Information,” Chief Brandon says. “This means that it is illegal to possess or use someone else’s information to obtain credit, goods or services.”
Still many get identity theft confused with credit card abuse, which, while a serious crime, is not nearly as difficult to recover from.
“I think it’s safe to say anyone who has ever had a credit card probably had an unauthorized charge on his or her account,” Jessica says. “However, with credit card fraud, it’s a simple process to get rid of unwanted charges. You call the credit card company and cancel the card. They send you a new one. With identity theft, the process is not that simple. Unless you have a company like ID Watchdog or LifeLock that will do the legwork for you, it’s a tedious process.”
And it all starts with one unfortunate phone call. So, what should you do first if you receive a message that your identity has been stolen? Where do you turn?
Be Vigilant and Smart
“If one believes they have become a victim of identity theft, the first step is to notify your local police department to file a report,” Chief Brandon says. “Most credit agencies and creditors will not accept a victim’s claim without an official police report.”
When Jessica discovered she had been victimized, she and her husband jumped to their phones to take action.
“I called the credit bureaus, he called the banks and credit card companies, the police, the IRS … anyone else we could think to notify,” she recalls. “I was desperate for information and the ‘off’ switch. In hindsight, I would have frozen my credit with all three credit bureaus rather than just issue a fraud alert.”
Based on her experience, Jessica recommends everyone take a few precautionary steps to help protect themselves from identity theft, though she knows no one will ever be completely safe. Here’s her advice:
1) Shred your personal information.
2) Only mail your outgoing mail at the USPS office, or hand deliver it to the mail carrier.
3) Enable two-step online verification for all your email accounts and bank/financial institution accounts. Add verbal passwords to all your bank, credit card and merchant accounts.
4) Get a credit report from all three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and Transunion).
5) Freeze your credit for everyone in your household (even children).
Though all highly suggested, Jessica notes the credit report to be the most important of all. “Do it today, and make sure it matches what you should have on there,” she urges. “Are there any inquiries from companies that you did not authorize? Are there any discrepancies? If yes, take care of those immediately.”
Chief Brandon echoes Jessica’s recommendation to shred all personal information. “In the past few years, there have been several large-scale data breaches including Target and the federal government,” he says. “Though a consumer can’t prevent a company’s data breach, things like retrieving mail promptly and putting out trash just before pickup can help. Shredding documents that contain personal information is also a great way to prevent a criminal from acquiring the needed information for an identity theft.”
Take advantage of neighborhood or community trash collection events, such as Southlake’s annual Crud Cruiser, to clean house while staying safe—with all documents shredded before removal.
“The bad guys always seem to be one step ahead of us,” Mayor Hill says. “Protecting yourself is a never-ending task, and that doesn’t even begin to deal with companies, the government and doctors that have your personal information that can be compromised.
“When you have computers searching for access, there is no selectivity,” Mayor Hill adds. “Hackers don’t care where you live.”
With data breaches and online hacking becoming an easy way for criminals to hide behind a screen, the only choice people have to protect themselves is absolute diligence.
In addition to the suggestions listed above, the National Consumers League advises updating browsers, anti-virus and operating system software regularly, securing your home wireless router and network, taking caution when opening links or attachments in emails, staying aware of which companies store your personal data, filing your taxes early, and again, reviewing your credit reports frequently.
If all this seems a little overwhelming, identity theft protection companies are available to help keep watch over your assets, so you’re not in this alone.
“After years of thinking that I should sign up for some kind of identity theft protection, a recent case in Southlake motivated me to finally do it,” Mayor Hill says.
Chief Brandon says that while some may be wary of paying a resource to assist with protecting your identity, the pros may outweigh the cons. “Critics of companies such as LifeLock are quick to point out that a vigilant person can do many of the same things that the company does. One can examine their free credit report to ensure that no credit has been obtained that isn’t legitimate. Reality is, most of us are not that vigilant, and there may be some benefit from utilizing these companies,” he says. Even if you don’t invest in services, the company’s blog, LifeLockUnlocked.com, is a goldmine of useful information.
“Spend the money to make sure your computer, iPad and cell phone are safe,” Mayor Hill advises. “Hire experts if you aren’t sure. You have to assume the worst will happen; that it will happen to you.”
Can you really put a price on peace of mind? Many, including Jessica, would likely say no. She’s still working to put the pieces of her stolen life back together, and it seems everyone knows another victim doing just the same. SS
*Last name omitted to protect victim’s identity
The Cold, Hard Facts of Identity Theft
More than 13 million Americans have experienced some sort of identity theft.
Identity fraud occurs every two seconds.
More than 30 percent of identity theft victims are scammed by family and close friends.
Identity theft has been the No. 1 consumer complaint for 15 consecutive years.
More than one billion records containing personal information were leaked in 2014.
Sources: Federal Trade Commission, CNN Money, IBM, ABC News