By Jenny Neyman
Vicki Johnston Freese and her husband, Richard, of Sterling, thought they knew how to protect themselves from identity theft. Don’t give out your Social Security number. Shred bank statements and personal information before putting paper in the trash. Check credit card bills regularly to spot fraudulent charges.
They learned several years ago that they didn’t know enough, but the preventative steps they did take at least made it so their brush with identity theft wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.
Whenever Richard Freese used his credit card, he was careful to always get the receipts and make sure his card number wasn’t left behind on any copies, Vicki said. But while taking a class at a college in the Lower 48 years ago, he used the card at the cafeteria. The cashier took down the number, gave it to her boyfriend and they went on a spending spree, at the Freeses’ expense.
They kept an eye on credit card statements, so they caught the $5,000 in fraudulent charges within a month, contacted the credit card company immediately and were able to get the matter squared away.
“I got that one cleared up really quick, but it made me worry about it,” Johnston Freese said.
She is a member of AARP and got a flier in the mail from the organization advertising a seminar in Soldotna on Friday and Saturday on consumer protection and investor education, including a session on avoiding identity theft. It was organized by AARP with several partners to help present information, including becoming a homeowner and keeping that investment safe, by NeighborWorks Anchorage; information on the Regulatory Commission of Alaska; weatherization and the energy rebate program, from Alaska Housing Finance Corporation; and a daylong session Saturday on investor education.
Johnston Freese was there Friday taking notes and gathering information — especially on weatherization, the rebate program and avoiding identity theft — for herself, family members and a friend.
“They’ve been really good presentations. I feel like if I walk off and end up with questions I feel like they gave us information to know where to go to find out what we need,” she said.
Identity theft was particularly of interest to her.
“I know what we are thinking of, but I want to know what we’re not thinking of. I know there’s more,” she said.
Indeed there is, said Tara Sims, Alaska public relations manager for the Better Business Bureau. Just as identity theft scams keep evolving, so do the steps consumers need to take to avoid those traps. And Alaskans, in particular, need to be wary. There were 490 identity theft complaints in Alaska in 2008 alone, which is an increase of more than 100 from 2007, Sims said.
“There is an increase in identity theft going on. It is definitely a growing problem,” she said.
The Federal Trade Commission ranks Alaska 34th in the nation for per-capita instances of identify theft. It’s hard to say exactly why that is, Sims said, but it may have to do with Alaska’s remoteness.
“The types of complaints, according to the statistics, a lot of it comes through credit card fraud,” Sims said. “We do a lot of online shopping in Alaska. We have to rely more heavily on phone service and the Internet to buy some of your goods. Even within the state, more so in Bush communities, we have to do a lot of business over the phone or Internet. And Alaska is kind of removed from the rest of the country, so sometimes we’ll see scams the rest of the states don’t see. We get some Canada gets.”
There are several safety measures the BBB recommends to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.
- Protect your Social Security number. “That’s the big, golden egg for all scam artists is to get that number,” Sims said. “Be very wary who you share it with. Ask lots of questions if they ask for it.”
And don’t carry a Social Security card on a daily basis. If a wallet or purse is lost or stolen, there goes the card.
“It would be very easy for someone to use it for unethical purposes,” she said.
- When creating passwords for online shopping or account access, choose something unique. Don’t use personal information, like a birthdate or address. And don’t carry passwords around with you, either written down in a purse or wallet, or entered into a cell phone or portable electronic device.
- Be careful of unsecured mailboxes. If sending mail, drop it in a secured box, and make sure to check the mail soon after mail is delivered, and put a vacation hold on your mail if you’re not able to check it quickly.
“Mailboxes are a super easy way for identity theft to happen,” Sims said. “It has happened right here in Alaska where someone has taken mail out of an unsecured mailbox.”
- Never store important documents in an unsecured location. Keep them in a locked box, preferably one that’s fireproof. Don’t keep them in the glove compartment, regular filing cabinet, in an office or workspace desk drawer.
- Shred all documents containing personal information before throwing them away.
“Once trash leaves your home you have no control over it. If you shred anything that has your personal information on it beforehand you can save yourself a lot of trouble. It’s really easy dig into the trash on the side of the road, or even at the dump, to get that information,” Sims said.
- Instead of signing credit and debit cards, write “check photo ID” on the back. If the card is stolen, it will be harder for a thief to use since they won’t be able to pass as the card owner.
- Credit cards are safer to use for online shopping and wire transfers than debit cards or sending checks. Even if a business won’t forgive a disputed charge, a card owner can take it up with their card company.
“Credit cards have better protection policies. You can dispute charges more easily. There’s a better chance of getting your money back,” Sims said.
- Report lost or stolen cards immediately, even if you think they may just be misplaced and not stolen. If it turns out a purse or wallet was just left at home, just call the credit card companies back and let them know the card has been found.
“It’s much better to let them know it’s missing ahead of time than wait to be sure it’s stolen and them start charging fraudulently on the card and have to deal with it later,” Sims said.
- Be on the lookout. Check credit card and bank statements regularly for fraudulent charges. Take advantage of the free credit report offered annually through http://www.annualcreditreport.com. Other sites may say they offer free credit reports, but it’s usually by signing up for a credit monitoring service that has charges in the future. If someone suspects they may be a victim of identity theft, it may be worth paying to check their credit report more frequently, but at least once a year is recommended, Sims said.
Keep track of when bank and credit card statements and bills are supposed to come. Missing paperwork may be a sign of identity theft.
- Don’t respond to unsolicited e-mails, Web sites or phone calls seeking information.
- For anyone who does a lot of online shopping, it’s helpful to get a credit card that’s only used for online shopping. And only use online sites that are secure. In the Web address, make sure it says “https://” rather than just “http.” The “s” denotes it’s a secure site. Of course, that doesn’t mean the business itself is ethical, it just means no one else will be able to see the personal information you send.
- Visit bbb.org to look up reliability reports on businesses you may be unfamiliar with or wary of. The reports will tell you if there have been complaints filed against the company, and how, when and if they’ve been resolved.
Consumers need to be responsible. It’s up to each individual to be on the lookout for identity theft.
“It’s really important to make sure and protect yourself. It’s the victims themselves that come across it and find out they were a victim of identity theft. No one tells you about it,” Sims said.
If identity theft is suspected, act immediately. It can take years to clear up and have significant, long-term effects on finances and credit, so it’s best to deal with it as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
“We’ve had people, it’s only after they’ve passed away that their family finds out somebody is using their identity. It’s something that can always be on your record if you don’t find out about it. It can take years and be a very frustrating process to resolve after becoming a victim of identity theft, so it’s very important to take steps to avoid it in the first place,” she said.
Resolve to be more wary in 2010
The Better Business Bureau of Alaska, Oregon and Western Washington reports the following top 10 scams of 2009.
- Lottery checks. Consumers receive letters in the mail from supposed lotteries like Publisher’s Clearing House telling them they’ve won millions, and must wire hundreds of dollars back to the scammers to cover taxes or some other bogus fee.
- Mortgage foreclosure assistance. Unethical companies target families struggling in the current economy by offering to help save their home or reduce debt; victims pay hundreds of dollars up front for assistance they never receive.
- Robocalls. Phone numbers — some of which are on the do-not-call list — receive harassing automated telemarketing calls, which often falsely claim that the consumer’s auto warranty is about to expire or offer to help reduce debt and credit card interest rates. The issue prompted the FTC’s ban on robocalls.
- Job hunter scams. As unemployment in the U.S. hit double digits for the first time in over 25 years, scammers had a large pool of out-of-work individuals to target, taking advantage of job hunters: False work-at-home opportunities and rebate processing schemes abound.
- Mystery shopping. The job asks consumers to secret shop a few stores, evaluate customer service and then transfer money back to their employer via Western Union or MoneyGram. The scam company sends an authentic-looking check to cover the costs. After wiring funds, victims discover it’s a fake check and are out hundreds or thousands of dollars.
- Google work-from-home scams. Countless Web sites claim “you can learn how to make money from home using Twitter.” Schemers lure in consumers — who think they’re getting a job with Google or Twitter — with misleading trial offers, starter kits and software.
- Phishing e-mails/H1N1 spam. Fake Web sites and phishing or spam e-mails promising to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus were rampant in 2009.
- Weight loss pill free trial offers. Online ads for acai berry or resveratrol weight loss pills use false endorsements from trusted national news organizations, Oprah, Rachel Ray or Doctor Oz in order to sell a “free product trial” with a small shipping charge; allegedly, credit cards are automatically charged month after month, without permission.
- Memorabilia. With the election of the first African American President and the death of Michael Jackson, 2009 provided great opportunities for scammers to sell memorabilia, collectibles and commemorative items at inflated prices, which may have only sentimental value.
- Friend/family in distress. Also known as the “Grandparent Scam,” the victim receives a call or online message from a “friend” or “family member” claiming to be stuck in an emergency, car accident or false arrest. The victim wires the money, discovering later it was a scam artist impersonating a friend or relative.