Southwest Florida hunting ground for cyber scammers

Southwest Florida hunting ground for cyber scammers

Scammers love Southwest Florida.

Consumers nationwide lose more than $1.5 billion a year in fraud that is reported to the Federal Trade Commission, and residents of Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties are among the hardest hit.

The Sarasota-Manatee region ranked in the top 10 nationwide in identity theft complaints to the FTC in 2012, the most recent year measured, and Charlotte County was right behind them.

Southwest Florida also made the top 25 for other fraud complaints, which can range from debt collection to lenders to shop-from-home retailers.

The security breach that hit retailers Target Corp. and Neiman-Marcus and affected more than 100 million customers late last year has heightened awareness of consumer fraud.

And the U.S. Internal Revenue Service warns that as tax season approaches, so do tax-related scams that attempt to bilk taxpayers.

Florida as a whole leads the nation in both identity theft and other fraud cases.

“Florida is always at the top of complaints across the board,” FTC spokesman Jay Mayfield said.

Scammers prey on the state’s older population, finding that seniors can be easier to exploit, he said. Affluent areas such as Sarasota, Naples, Palm Beach and elsewhere also are popular because, well, that’s where the money is.

The consumer losses reported to the FTC represent just a fraction of the billions of dollars consumers lose every year in fraud schemes, however. Most of those losses are not filed with the federal agency or other law enforcement agencies and therefore cannot be tallied.

Even so, the numbers are staggering. Two years ago, the FTC estimated annual losses from ID theft alone at $15.6 billion.

Each incident of reported fraud cost the victim an average of $2,350.

Residents of Sarasota-Manatee reported 1,720 cases of identity theft to the FTC in 2012, or 250 per 100,000 in population. That was the ninth-highest per-capita rate of ID theft in the nation.

Charlotte ranked 11th nationwide, with 353 complaints, or 221 per 100,000 in population.

For cases of other fraud, the FTC received 3,656 complaints from Sarasota-Manatee, a rate of 521 per 100,000 that ranked 21st in the country.

Residents of Charlotte County filed 82 fraud complaints, or 518 per 100,000. That ranked 24th nationally.

Metro areas around Florida held the top five spots nationwide for ID theft. Fraud-wracked Miami was first, followed by Naples, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fort Myers-Cape Coral and Tallahassee.

The data breach at nearly all of Target’s 1,797 stores was one of the largest in retail history.

The giant retailer initially said hackers gained access to 40 million credit and debit cards used by customers during the peak of the holiday shopping season, but it later admitted as many as 110 million customers might be affected.

Hackers from Eastern Europe are believed to be responsible. Neiman-Marcus also reported an in-store breach that affected 1.1 million customers, and several other retailers, including Michael’s arts and crafts store chain, may have been hacked as well.

Consulting firm Strategy & Research estimates the total damage to banks and retailers could top $18 billion, with consumers liable for $4 billion in uncovered losses and other costs.

In addition to credit and debt card information, shoppers who used their cards at Target stores between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15 also may have had personal information stolen — such as names, mailing addresses, email addresses and phone numbers.

“Recent security breaches at Target, Skype and Snapchat show that identity theft has become a major problem in our society,” said Bill Hardekopf, CEO at

“Unfortunately, personal information, email, credit cards and bank accounts are not as private and protected as we think. It is important for consumers to recognize suspicious activity and take steps to protect themselves.”

The hackers, using a malware program that cracked Target’s cyber security, stole the account numbers and other data to sell on the black market. Buyers use that information to create counterfeit credit cards or to create new identities that they then try to use to access money.

Target says customers won’t be liable for charges they did not make.

“You will not be responsible for fraudulent charges — either your bank or Target have that responsibility,” chairman and CEO Gregg Steinhafel said in a letter to card holders.

But already, more than 60 lawsuits have been filed against Target, some seeking class-action status, according to news reports. Some banks and credit card issuers rushed to replace customers’ cards.

Retail fraud isn’t the only kind that strikes in Southwest Florida, however.

The 2014 tax season opened Jan. 31, and with it comes a proliferation of tax-related scams.

“Florida is certainly a hot spot for identity theft when it comes to fraudulent tax filings,” said Mike Dobzinski, an IRS spokesman for Florida.

The agency says scams can take many forms. Scammers may pose as IRS agents, and call or email potential victims to get personal and financial information.

Using a simple Internet connection, thieves can file an unlimited number of fraudulent tax returns and obtain thousands of dollars in refunds.

South Florida U.S. Attorney Wilfredo Ferrer said his office has prosecuted 270 people since an identity theft-tax fraud taskforce was created in 2012. The cases involved nearly $450 million in fraudulent tax refund claims and 76,700 ID thefts.

“This is the fastest growing and most pervasive scheme we are seeing,” he said. “It spreads like a virus.”

Taxpayers should be wary of emails that contain the IRS logo, Dobzinski said. The agency does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media. More importantly, it won’t ever ask for PIN numbers, passwords or other confidential information that would access bank, credit card or other financial accounts.

An IRS official has predicted that $21 billion in fraudulent tax refund claims will be made over the next five years.

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