One of the most unsettling aspects of identity theft is that it’s one of the few crimes that can happen without you even knowing it.
Worse yet is the fact that scammers often operate by preying on the generosity of their victims, posing as troubled friends, grandchildren, or even deposed political prisoners in order to rip off good-natured individuals who are trying to help someone out of a bind.
And as we conduct more and more of our business online, the importance of keeping a close eye on our personal information has never been greater.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 8.6 million households had at least one member age 12 or older who had experienced one or more types of identity theft victimization. Among that group, 64.1% experienced the misuse or attempted misuse of an existing credit card account.
Menlo Park Police Detective Jeff Cooley said that in addition to traditoinal phishing scams, where crooks attempt to trick people into divulging their sensitive personal information such as credit card or banking details (often by posing as bank or credit card company representatives), he’s come across more sophisticated, tech-savvy frauds in recent years.
“Nowadays, what we’re seeing a lot more of is credit card fraud; using somebody’s personal card information, obtained through either phishing or skimmers on ATM machines, gas pumps, or that type of thing.”
Skimmers are electronic devices that crooks use to pilfer the electronic information stored on the magnetic strips of credit cards. And while that could be alarming enough to make anyone revert to a cash-only mentality, Cooley said that keeping a close watch on your credit card statements is the best antidote for would-be identity thieves.
“It’s more sophisticated, but it’s not uncommon at this point,” Cooley said. In Menlo Park we’ve had a number of instances where we’ve located skimmers on gas pumps … The best way to protect yourself is to be aware of your credit card bill. If there are charges that show up that aren’t legitimate, that you don’t recognize, then you’ve got to report that,” Cooley said.
Palo Alto Police Detective Sgt. James Reifschneider echoed the same sentiment. When it comes to keeping personal information protected, especially anything that has social security information on it, be proactive, he said.
He said that his department still receives numerous calls about e-mail solicitation scams, which he said are little more than the newest forms of cons that have existed since time immemorial.
“In my view, the Internet hasn’t changed what scammers do,” Reifschneider said. “It’s just given them a new form to do it. They’re still running the same kinds of scams they always have, but they’re just doing it via e-mail and via web transactions instead of face-to-face or at the store counter. ”
And while it may seem somewhat trite to remind people to “use common sense” when conducting business online or over the phone, Reifschneider said that it’s still one of the best pieces of advice he has to offer. Using the same level of scrutiny that you would use in person when it comes to wiring money or divulging sensitive financial information can be a good rule of thumb.
“The number of people that report being successfully scammed with seems to be going down, but they’re still out there … We know that frauds of this type are really underreported, he said. "And the reason for that is that people who frequently fall for this type of a scam, they’re embarrassed that they’ve been had … The truth is, these scammers wouldn’t keep doing the scam if there weren’t people that fell for it.”
Traditionally, identity thieves look to make easy targets out of senior citizens who may be too trusting of someone who sounds well-rehearsed.
Reifschneider said that a common scam currently making the rounds involves an individual posing as a grandchild who asks for quick cash after running into financial trouble or some other misfortune. In theory, if the thief can find out the grandchild’s name ahead of time, well-meaning seniors can fall prey all-too easily.
Along with keeping vigilant watch over your personal information, and ensuring that friends and family are just as cautious, there are a number of additional resources available to help shield against the threat of identity theft.
Reifschneider recommends taking advantage of annualcreditreport.com which provides free copies of credit scores from each of the three major reporting bureaus, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax, once per year. Reifschneider said that reviewing your credit report regularly is one of the best ways to ensure that no unauthorized financial activity is taking place in your name without your knowledge.
Still, no matter how careful one is, no one can be completely insulated against the threat of identity theft. The Federal Trade Commission also has information available on what to do should you become of victim.
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