Florida leads nation in fraud, ID theft

Florida leads nation in fraud, ID theft

WASHINGTON — Florida remained the hotspot for fraud and identity theft in 2014, burdened by the highest per-person rate of consumer complaints in the nation..

Among metro areas, South Florida topped the list for ID-theft complaints for the fifth year in a row, according to figures released by the Federal Trade Commission.

But complaints from the region have dwindled from prior years, a sign that an intense federal and local crackdown has had an impact.

Florida — long known for flimflam, bogus swamp sales and Medicare fraud — was home to seven of the top 20 metro areas for consumer fraud complaints last year. The state is the third most populous with 19.9 million but has the highest fraud rate by far.

Still, the latest data on South Florida is a victory of sorts: The reported identity thefts are about half that of 2012, the peak of this ubiquitous crime in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

“The numbers are getting better,” said Cindy Liebes, FTC southeast regional director, who has traveled from Atlanta in previous years to warn of identity theft at town hall meetings throughout South Florida.

Computer hacking that exposed consumer information from companies such as Target and Home Deport has exacerbated the long-standing problem, the National Consumers League warned Tuesday.

“Data breaches regularly expose sensitive personal information about millions of Florida consumers on cyber-crime black markets,” said John Breyault, vice president of the Consumers League. “Without reforms in Washington to better protect consumers’ data, high identity-theft rates could become the ‘new normal’ for consumers in Florida and around the country.”

He said thieves and scammers apparently are attracted to Florida for a host of reasons: Its lack of state income tax means less scrutiny from state officials. Its transient population makes it easier for hit-and-run operators to blend in. Its large senior population provides a tempting target of savings and vulnerabilities. And its fast development “means a lot of new money floating around.”

More than 200,000 fraud-related complaints poured in from Floridians last year, the highest per-person rate in the nation, with 1,007 complaints per 100,000 of population. Florida’s high rate was followed by Georgia and Nevada.

More than 37,000 Floridians complained of identity theft, giving the state the highest rate — 186 per 100,000 — followed by Washington and Oregon.

Among metro areas, Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach had 18,428 ID-theft complaints, the nation’s highest rate of 316 per 100,000.

Next highest were Seattle, St. Louis, Tallahassee and the Naples area. Jacksonville had the ninth highest rate, Fort Myers the 11th highest, Port St. Lucie 12th, Lakeland/Winter Haven 13th, and Orlando/Kissimmee/Sanford tied with Tampa for 17th.

Many of the thefts are discovered when taxpayers are unable to file their returns because an identity thief had already sent a return using their names.

In early 2013, officials from the IRS called South Florida one of the “twin epicenters” in the state for tax-related identity theft and vowed to continue a crackdown. In a year, the federal agency tripled the number of investigations, doubled the number of IRS staffers working on tax-related identity theft and beefed up its computer software to ferret out fraudulent returns.

The IRS included two Florida cases in its top 10 identity theft prosecutions last year. Keven Cimeus, of Miami, was sentenced to 156 months in prison after federal agents found more than 2,400 Social Security numbers and names stored on thumb drives, laptops, an iPad and his email account. And Tanya Fox, of Orlando, was sentenced in October to 240 months in prison and ordered to pay more than $4 million for a scheme to file fraudulent tax returns using stolen identities taken from the Orange County Health Department.

Fighting ID theft also became the top priority for the FBI’s 800 employees who work between Fort Pierce and Key West.

Local law enforcement also stepped up. Last year, for example, the Hollywood Police Department launched an economic crimes unit that investigates crimes including identity theft and fraud.

The National Consumer League, a private nonprofit advocacy group, said the report shows the need for Congress to increase penalties for malicious computer hacking and to require companies to meet data-security standards to safeguard consumer information.

Tips for staying secure

The National Consumer League recommends that consumers:

Resist clicking on suspicious links or attachments in emails, text messages or on the Web. These often contain malware that can hijack your computer and steal sensitive personal information like Social Security numbers, user-names, passwords and dates of birth.

File taxes early. The FTC identified tax-related identity theft as a top source of identity theft complaints. Scammers file in someone else’s name early in tax season and collect fraudulent returns before the legitimate taxpayer has filed his or her return.

Create strong and unique passwords using a combination of letters, numbers and symbols. Avoid using common words or names in your password and don’t use the same password across multiple websites.

Review credit reports regularly and report any suspicious activity promptly.

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