Identity theft on the rise, feds warn

The FBI and U.S. Marshals Service are warning people to beware of identity theft ploys.

STAYING SAFE

Identity theft advice from Sgt. Rod Russell of the Indiana State Police:

• Give out your Social Security number, credit card number and birth date only when absolutely necessary.

• Reduce the number of credit cards you use. Cancel all unused accounts and destroy the old cards.

• Cross-shred pre-approved credit applications, credit card receipts, bills and other financial documents.

• Do not give personal information on the telephone, especially cordless or cell phones. Your conversation can be picked up by scanners and baby monitors.

• Never use Social Security numbers or birth dates for PIN codes.

This month, the agencies have investigated reports of callers claiming to need to verify a person’s identity because the person didn’t show up for jury duty. It’s a scam to get Social Security numbers, the agencies warned.
That’s part of the world of identity theft, where numbers can be more valuable than money.

In 2003, a survey by the Federal Trade Commission found businesses and financial institutions lost $48 billion to identity theft, with $5 billion more lost by consumers. Another survey by Boston analysts Aberdeen Group said identity theft losses were growing at 300 percent a year.

“You have to protect your Social Security number as best as you can,” said Maj. Larry Turner of the Indiana State Police criminal investigation section.

For years, Indiana placed Social Security numbers on driver’s licenses, until the risk became obvious and the state dropped that requirement. Combined with names and home addresses, the numbers can be used to set up fraudulent accounts.
Those accounts may not last long, but experts say it doesn’t take much time for scammers to get the value they want from the phony accounts.

Phishing, the practice of sending legitimate-appearing e-mails that try to trick people into giving out Social Security and credit card information, has grown so much that people have to assume that mail is fake, said Scott Ksander, chief information security officer at Purdue University.

Earlier this year, a wave of phishing messages was sent to Purdue credit union members using the same graphics as those used by the legitimate credit union.

Similar tactics also have targeted customers of other financial institutions.
“Your general posture has to be ‘I’m suspicious of this,’ ” said Ksander.
Identity crime occurs frequently because it’s a low-risk, high-reward venture, according to Sgt. Rod Russell of the State Police.
“We’ve traded convenience for security — that’s really a bad tradeoff,” Russell said, citing the common use of credit cards for Internet shopping.

Most orders go through without trouble, but crooks can make millions. Ksander said there’s a $100 million annual business alone in selling the tools to create online frauds.Part of the reason for the thefts is the way people respond to online orders and e-mail requests.”If I walked up to your door and said, ‘I’m from your bank. Would you verify your name?’ you’d be suspicious. But in the Internet world, you have no sense of the person asking,” Ksander said. “People are more trusting online, and that’s the basis of these con games.”

ISP’s Turner points out another common online scam: Two people set up a sales deal from online contacts, and the scammer sends a check worth more than the purchase price. The apologetic scammer asks the victim to send back the excess payment, and the victim later learns that the check is a fake or bounces. The victim loses the value of the bounced check, while the scammer gets enough cash to make the deal worthwhile.

The scams are not limited to the Internet. Russell worries about the low-tech misuse of ordinary mail sales pitches.
He says trashed pre-approved credit card offers can be recovered and the return addresses changed, and a fraudster can get a few days of free credit. Instead of discarding those, shred them, he says, or contact the company making the offer and have it stop that mail.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department is among the agencies that are trying to unravel the twisted path of a man, possibly from Fort Wayne, who is suspected of forging checks and stealing dozens of credit card and Social Security numbers, converting them to money and merchandise.

“This case is going to be huge,” said IMPD Sgt. David Wisneski, noting that forged checks worth around $40,000 are involved.

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