Identity theft incidents are reported to the Carver County Sheriff’s Office and Chaska Police on a nearly daily basis.
In some cases, we can identify the offender and gather enough evidence for a conviction. Unfortunately, in more cases, suspects are never located due to their sophisticated methods of concealing themselves and conducting their business far out of state.
Either way, victims of ID theft crimes face months, if not years, of arduous work in sorting out fraudulent purchases, false debt and compromised credit.
Simply put, ID theft occurs when someone uses another’s personal information (Social Security number, name, address, birthdate, account numbers, etc.) without their permission, to open new accounts, make unauthorized purchases or steal funds from existing accounts. ID theft is rampant in the United States — according to the Federal Trade Commission, it processed 1.4 million cases in 2018 representing a $1.5 billion loss.
Because of limited space, I will point out just a few of the more common ID theft acts we see, and then provide several steps you can take to prevent being a victim.
One of the most common forms of ID theft occurs when an account, usually one involving the use of credit, is opened in your name without your knowledge. The goal is for the offender to obtain merchandise or funds as quick as possible before it’s noticed. Fortunately, most credit-issuing financial institutions will not hold a victim of ID theft responsible for fraudulent activity if the incident is addressed in a timely fashion. However, activity like this can jeopardize one’s credit rating and ability to obtain credit for years.
A similar ID theft tactic is gaining access to existing accounts of yours without your knowledge. Nearly any type of account — be it a credit card or personal checking — is vulnerable with one having the right information of yours. Gone are the days of face-to-face business. Practically all forms of ID theft are occurring online. I’m currently working on a case where an offender used his employer’s name and checking account information to make fraudulent online purchases and online bill payments.
Another form of ID theft will become quite common in the coming few months — income tax return fraud. This occurs when someone uses your name and SSN to file a false return before you do in order to claim a refund. The offender typically files a very early return online, knowing most people delay filing their own returns until closer to the filing deadline. A victim won’t be aware of this until they attempt to file and discover a return has already been completed under their name and SSN. IRS refunds can be direct deposited into falsely-created, temporary, bank accounts, so identifying a suspect is often difficult, at best.
Finally, speaking of the IRS, some people will unwittingly give their personal information out to someone else in scams. Often, the elderly are targeted when they receive a threatening call or email from an “IRS agent” threatening them with arrest if they don’t provide their SSNs or passwords to bank accounts. Some people panic under these circumstances and don’t realize the error until it’s too late.
Prevention and vigilance are the keys in not becoming a victim. Here are a few of the many steps one can take.
- Protect your SSN, passwords, and other sensitive information. Don’t carry your Social Security card. Shred your bank statements, receipts, and such. Don’t share information over the phone or in emails unless you initiate the call. Remember, the IRS will not make first contact with you over the phone.
- Avoid leaving sensitive mail in your mailbox. Thieves often wait in neighborhoods for residents to mail bills, or they know the schedule of mail carriers delivering the mail, in order to steal checks and statements. If you order check blanks, consider picking them up at the bank. Take your bill payments directly to a U.S. Post Office drop box.
- Monitor your accounts and credit reports often. You can get a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every year. Go into your online accounts and look for suspicious activity more often than just once a month.
- Pay attention to those “nuisance” mailings you receive. They may be a request for verifying information or confirming a newly-opened account in your name.
- File your income tax return as early as possible. Don’t wait or someone might file one for you!
- If you have elderly family members, assist them in monitoring their mail, bill paying, and incoming soliciting phone calls. If they’re in a nursing home, consider receiving their mail so unscrupulous caregivers can’t access it.
- Consider identity/credit monitoring services. Some homeowner insurance companies offer this. Also, if available, set up online or text alerts with your banks to advise you of transactions exceeding user-defined amounts.
If you believe you’re a victim of ID theft, contact the associated company or financial institution that’s involved. Get the affected accounts suspended immediately. Contact a credit bureau and/or Social Security Administration to report fraudulent activity and flag your accounts for possible future activity. Closely monitor all your other accounts.
There are many more steps to take to protect your identity, and tons of information is available, as well.
Don’t wait until it’s too late, believing or hoping ID theft won’t happen to you. It’s far better to be proactive than reactive.