Task force established to fight identity theft Naples ranks No. 2 in the country for complaints

Task force established to fight identity theft Naples ranks No. 2 in the country for complaints

Identity theft has stealthily become an epidemic in Southwest Florida, local law enforcement officials and fraud experts say.

There were about 12.6 million such crimes in 2013 in the United States, with no state reporting more than Florida, according to Federal Trade Commission data. The problem was especially acute in this area, with metropolitan Naples ranking No. 2 in the country in identity theft complaints and Fort Myers-Cape Coral coming in at No. 4.

No one’s personal, financial or medical information is safe from this byproduct of our digital age and the ingenuity of scammers, says Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk.

“With technology being as great as it is, it presents a lot of challenges for the future,” the sheriff says. “So it’s not a matter of if your personal data is breached, it’s when it will breached and how you spot it quickly and how RAMBOSK you correct it quickly. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Filing fraudulent tax returns to divert refunds, using a stolen identity to obtain loans and using information stolen from the files of tax preparers or from medical records are just some of the identity-theft trends law enforcement has encountered over about the last year, the sheriff says.

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office established a “Call Before You Pay” hotline — 252-2255 — late last year so that people could verify the legitimacy of solicitations they receive. “More often than not, they’ve not been legitimate,” says the sheriff.

Sheriff Rambosk is leading the newly formed Collier Identity Theft Task Force in its mission to raise public awareness and provide tips for protecting personal information and details about what steps take if you fall victim to the crime.

To get the word out, the task force is holding a slate of public forums around Collier County. The next one takes place from 5-6:15 p.m., Monday, April 21, at the North Naples Fire & Rescue Training Center. Another meeting will be held from 5-6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 1, at the Jewish Family & Community Center off Castello Drive in Naples, and a third is set for 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 27, at the Marco Island branch of Iberiabank.

Meetings are also being arranged in some residential communities around the county.

“What we’re trying to do (at the forums) is give a global overview of the problem of identity theft to reinforce why we think it’s an issue,” Sheriff Rambosk says. “We want people to understand it can happen right there in our county and in our community, where we have people skimming credit card numbers.”

The task force is an outgrowth of the AARP Foundation’s focus on anti-fraud efforts, says Mike Reagen, the organization’s local volunteer “ambassador” and the former CEO and president of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Reagen says the foundation asked him to organize the task force because of rising numbers of fraudrelated crimes in this region.

Joining the sheriff on the task force are Naples Police Chief Thomas Weschler, Marco Island Police Chief Don Hunter, member of the Collier Citizens Council, local attorneys along with a multitude of community and religious organizations and local businesses. Their ranks also include Naples resident Carrie Kerskie, a private investigator and consultant who specializes in identity theft matters. Ms. Kerskie is the author of “Your Public Identify: Because Nothing is Private Anymore.”

The task force has created a website, www.IDTheftTaskForce.com, where fraud- prevention tips and other vital information will be available. The website should be online this week.

Ms. Kerskie says anti-fraud information can be obtained from a confusing assortment of sources and the website will serve as clearinghouse to ease that process for residents.

The metro-Naples area is a prime target for identity theft and other types of fraud because of its relative affluence and robust tourist trade, says Sheriff Rambosk. While crimes such as burglary, robbery and auto theft have been declining in Collier County, he adds, identity theft complaints have been skyrocketing, rising from 333 in 2010, to 381 in 2011 and 1,459 in 2012. There was a slight drop to 1,080 last year.

“We do have a safe community, but we need to remind people that identity theft is becoming more and more of a problem,” he says. “We’re trying to get out in front (of it) with this effort.”

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