Town halls to educate about ID theft in South Florida
By day, Salita St. Simon worked as a senior clerk at the Palm Beach County Health Department.
But federal prosecutors said last week she put in a second shift of stealing patients’ names and Social Security numbers to funnel to fraudsters to use the identities to seek fraudulent federal income tax returns. St. Simon, 30, of Belle Glade was arrested last Tuesday for allegedly stealing more than 2,800 identities — averaging nearly 54 in week.
Her case illustrates how vulnerable South Floridians are to identity theft, prompting the Internal Revenue Service to almost quadruple the number of investigations in Florida in just a year.
Alarmed, local, state and federal officials are holding a series of town hall meetings to warn South Floridians of the dangers of identity theft and to give tips on how they can protect their personal information.
“Tax-related identity theft continues to be a problem in South Florida,” said Cindy Liebes, regional director of the Southeast Regional Office of the Federal Trade Commission.
Her agency has found the metro area of Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties remains the top spot for identity theft. Now, before April 15, many criminals try to file fraudulent tax returns for fat refunds — before the honest taxpayer can.
Several South Florida workers, including St. Simon, have been arrested in the past year for allegedly stealing identities from their offices to use in filing fraudulent tax returns, according to law enforcement officials.
Liebes said the local town hall meetings will give South Floridians the facts about identity theft so they can be more vigilant in protecting their personal information.
The first will be 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesday at the Boca Raton Police Department Training Center, 6500 Congress Ave. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, is expected to attend, Liebes said. No pre-registration is necessary.
Later that evening, from 6:30 to 7:30 a.m., U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, is scheduled to be at another town hall meeting at the Southwest Regional Library, 16835 Sheridan St., in Pembroke Pines.
And on Thursday, Wasserman Schultz will be at a third identity theft meeting from 2 to 3 p.m. in the Commission Chamber at the Sunny Isles Beach Government Center, 18070 Collins Ave, in Sunny Isles Beach.
The congresswoman has been busy preparing legislation with bipartisan support to try to deter tax-related identity theft by increasing the penalties for criminals caught filing fraudulent tax returns. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is a co-sponsor of the bill that was introduced Friday.
Meanwhile, the IRS has been dramatically expanding its number of identity theft investigations in Florida.
“We are already up to 156 investigations in Florida” in about four months, IRS acting commissioner Steven T. Miller said recently.
In contrast, “we opened 204 criminal investigations involving identity theft,” for the most recent fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, he said.
That was almost four times the number of probes conducted in fiscal year 2011, he said.
Making identity theft too dangerous to pursue will discourage criminals from even trying, Miller said.
How to avoid ID theft
Here are tips from local, state and federal officer for avoiding identity theft:
Never give out your Social Security number to strangers, avoid giving it at even medical offices.
Keep your Social Security card in a secure location at your home; don’t carry it on you to avoid theft.
Shop on secure sites that have “http” in the address bar and a yellow padlock logo to the right of the Web browser address bar which you can double-click to see a digital certificate of the website.
Make sure you enter correct URLs. Hackers use misspelled domains to trick people into entering personal information.
Never enter your Social Security number or passwords to email and bank accounts as part of the buying process with online retailers.
Beware of phishing email scams that include website links advertising “incredible deals.” Don’t click on them. Type the link directly into your browser.
Shred any personal information before it ends up in a garbage can.
Install and update antivirus, anti-malware and firewall software on your computer.
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