Identity theft on the rise in Florida, Gainesville no exception

Brittnie Baker binge-watched “Orange Is The New Black” on Netflix in two days. She has run a half marathon, traveled to 13 countries and knows almost every word to “Legally Blonde.”

But she’s not one-of-a-kind.

Capital One, for example, recently had two different profiles for Brittnie Baker in its system. Even the Internal Revenue System was confused — while one Brittnie Baker hadn’t yet filed taxes, the other was getting a $38,000 refund.

The “real” Baker, a 24-year-old UF alumna and Florida State University law student, is a victim of identity theft.

Her case joined the 69,795 complaints of identity theft filed in Florida last year, according to the Consumer Sentinel Network. About three times as many complaints were filed then as there were in 2008, making Florida part of a national trend that shows identity theft has been on the rise in recent years.

In fact, since 2009, Florida has had the highest number of identity theft complaints in the United States, according to the online database of consumer complaints run by the Federal Trade Commission.

Identity theft is a problem everywhere, said Gainesville Police Detective Matthew Goeckel.

“We do see our fair share of it,” said Goeckel, who has worked in GPD’s Economic Crimes Unit for about three years.

Alyssa Jones, public relations manager for Protect Your Bubble, an insurance company that offers identity protection, said the company is investigating why Florida has such high rates of identity theft.

As of now, the company doesn’t know. However, she said, cases have continued to increase everywhere.

“We’re so much more exposed now than we ever used to be,” Jones said.

In today’s digital age, any information a person puts online could be compromised.

Kristina Bergman, a UF psychology and food science and human nutrition junior, said her dad thinks his information was stolen when he filled out financial aid for her Bright Futures scholarship.

“But he’s always buying stuff online, always buying stuff on Amazon,” the 20-year-old said. “I think it could be anything.”

Using his information, multiple credit card accounts were opened in Texas. Although Bergman’s family is financially stable now, her dad’s credit had been crippled.

“I don’t think we’re suffering from it financially,” she said. “But the fear lingers.”

In Baker’s case, a stranger was using her name, Social Security number and birthday.

She received a letter, informing her a refund for $38,000 had been issued in her name for the 2011 tax year. Knowing she hadn’t filed her taxes yet, she completed an ID theft affidavit in October 2012.

“I was really worried,” she said. “I realized I give out my Social Security number more than I want to.”

It wasn’t until February that everything was settled with the IRS, and she could get her real tax return.

Goeckel said one of the most active times of the year for identity theft is during tax season. He said people go to file their taxes and find out someone already filed them in their name.

Three days before getting the initial letter from the IRS, Baker received another letter.

This one was from Capital One stating “possible fraudulent Capital One account that has recently been opened using some or all of your personal information.”

“I obviously knew it was not me,” said Baker, who already had a card with the bank.

The police never found out who stole Baker’s information.

Goeckel said he finds many of the people stealing identities are located out of the U.S., particularly in Eastern Europe.

But in the U.S., a “fair amount” are caught, he said.

Still, big-time identity theft can happen in businesses, like hospitals and doctor’s offices, which most people would consider secure.

Although Baker said she doesn’t know who stole her identity, she thinks she could have been a victim of the South Miami Hospital identity-theft scam.

During her freshman year of college, she underwent jaw surgery at the hospital. In March, South Miami Hospital announced that two convicted identity thieves allegedly paid a respiratory therapist at the hospital for patients’ personal information, including Social Security numbers. The numbers were sold up to $150 each, and about 800 patients were affected between June 2011 and February 2012.

A similar situation happened at UF Health Shands Hospital.

About 14,000 patients were notified in April that a Shands employee had been involved in an identity-theft ring and had given out patients’ names, birthdays and Social Security numbers from March 2009 to October 2012, according to a UF news release.

Another incident happened in May at the UF Pediatric Primary Care Clinic. An employee of the clinic stole about 6,000 patients’ and parents of patients’ information, according to a UF news release. UF investigated and found that the employee improperly accessed some of the records.

Although doctor’s offices are considered secure, one employee could jeopardize everything, Goeckel said.

“All it takes is one bad employee,” he said.

Goeckel himself was a victim about two years ago. His bank contacted him because it needed to authorize a charge coming from Australia. The bank solved the problem quickly, and no money was taken.

He suspects his information was taken from a company like Netflix or Redbox. But Goeckel maintains that both companies are secure.

Because anyone can be a victim, he said, people need to be proactive about protecting their information. He said they should check their credit reports periodically.

After going through her ordeal, Baker hired a service that informs her when anything is changed with her account. She is even hesitant to give out her Social Security number to doctors.

“I realized how easy it is for someone to do this,” she said.

Goeckel said it’s almost impossible to be 100 percent safe and secure.

The only way to be completely safe from identity theft, he said, is to “live in bubble and basically use cash for the rest of your life.”

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