|7/21/2007 – David Dexter went to his credit union and discovered heed been robbed — of his very identity.
“I was going for a loan and they told me I had a mark on my credit,” he said.
The Hillsdale man was shocked his excellent credit score had tumbled.
“Someone used my name and credit to buy something on the east coast in a timeframe I couldn’t have been there,” he said. “They left me with a $188 or so unpaid bill.”
Identify theft is a growing problem in Hillsdale County as well as the rest of the country. The irony is it is a fraud that often hits the victim in more ways than one. And while anyone can be victimized by identify theft, the elderly are the most often hit.
“I got the loan,” Dexter said, “but I have to pay an extra point in interest because of the mark on the credit.”
Dexter added it isn’t easy to correct the credit reports. It takes time and paperwork.
More paperwork also adds to the burden of any investigator, said Captain Dave Braxmaier, Hillsdale County Sheriffs Department.
“It takes a lot of hours,” said Braxmaier, who supervises the team of detectives working the cases.
“An identify theft case can take two to three days on top of the eight to 10 cases the detectives are working consistently.”
Braxmaier said it’s difficult to set a number or proportion of cases to identify theft as it is part of the broader category of crimes known as fraud. Fraudulent activities also include a growing number of telephone and computer–based scams designed to take money from victims.
Most identity thieves and con artists live and work outside of the local jurisdiction, and so are extremely difficult to catch and bring back to Hillsdale for trial.
Because identity theft is a quickly growing worldwide phenomena, in Dexter’s case the thief committed the crime in another part of the country. Victims can find themselves robbed by someone living on the other side of the globe.
“We had an elderly man lost maybe $100,000,” said Braxmaier. “He was told he had won the Canadian lottery.”
The victim lost his money while trying to claim his prize. Targets are often told they can claim their prizes by confirming their identification through sharing personal information, such as numbers associated with a drivers license, social security and bank account. The identification and the dollars can then be used by the thieves.
“Once (the crooks) have access to your bank account, they’re gone with the money,” Braxmaier said. “We tell people to never share any personal information with someone you don’t know.”
But even someone you know well can be an identify thief. Nationally, it is estimated more than half of identify thefts involve relatives and/or members of ones own household. These often go unreported locally, or the family drops the investigation and prosecution.
What I.D predators often took advantage of could be called “great granny credit.” Older citizens worked hard to put away money for their retirement, their mortgages are paid and their credit reports reflect an excellent record. All these make for fertile ground for thieves and scam artists to sow seeds of financial destruction.
“I’m so concerned for our older citizens,” said Gearldine Spieth, a member of the Hillsdale County Board of Commissioners.
The representative for Litchfield, Reading and Allen Townships called attention to the problem at a recent commission meeting, asking everyone to make the subject high priority for alerting constituents to potential problems.
“People do prey on the elderly,” said Terry Vear, executive director, Hillsdale County Senior Services Center. “We tell people, — If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
Vear said she’s currently presenting a program, titled “Schemes, Scams and Financial Exploitation,” to area township boards and anywhere else she’s invited. The message is to be safe rather than sorry and is backed up by reminders through a program brochure, her weekly radio program on WCSR — Perennial Park Perspectives, and the center’s free quarterly Golden Leaves newsletter.
“We tell people to get as much information as they can, rather than give it away,” said Vear.
Among suggested resources is the Better Business Bureau, which regularly alerts senior citizens as well as the general public on popular and new scams. The Better Business Bureau Foundation serves lower Michigan as well as northwest Ohio and can be contacted at 1 (800) 743–4222.
“The potential of being cheated is significant,” said Richard Epstein, president of the regional office serving Hillsdale County among several others in Michigan. “The threat has increased with the internationalization of fraud.
“The con artist can be contacting you from Canada or Nigeria or anywhere else on the planet. It’s no longer cost prohibitive to place a long distance call and the potential profit is tremendous.”
If people believe they are being targeted or are already a victim of fraud, Epstein asks them to e–mail any reports or questions on companies to the Better Business Bureau. Their e–mail address is email@example.com, and/or visit their Web site at www.bbb.org.
A person can be a target of identify theft or scams more than once. Just ask David Dexter, who is also co–owner and vice president of Winner’s Circle. Hillsdale’s Yamaha dealer caught on early to a recent attempt to use someoneâ’ stolen identify to purchase a couple motorcycles. Dexter then turned around and helped Branch County Sheriff’s investigators catch the crooks when they defrauded a Coldwater dealer.
Winner’s Circle finance manager Mark Fucile said he could smell the crooks over the telephone.
“They wouldn‘tât come in, they didn’t care how much the motorcycles might cost,” said Fucile. “If you have someone with that impeccable credit, you know they’re someone who shops wisely. So, we shot ‘em down and then put a warning out to other stores in the area.”
So, when Branch County needed to catch the crooks that cheated Brickyard Motors of Coldwater out of some $30,000, investigators went to Winner’s Circle.
“We used them to pose as people with motorcycles to sell to the suspects, which were actually in the Chicago area,” said Detective Sergeant Dan Nichols, Branch County Sheriff’s Department. “We caught four people in the operation. One of the bikes was recovered; the other appears to have been wrecked.”
Stolen identities from two people were used to make the fraudulent purchases. One of the identity theft victims was from Chicago and the other from Kentucky.
“The identity information of those two individuals were simply sold on the street in Chicago,” said Nichols. “Someone had done some dumpster diving.”