Identity theft on rise | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Identity theft on rise

Jeff Munson and Amanda Fehd

Photo Illustration by Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune

It used to be that identity theft was something that happened to other people.

Not anymore.

Whether it is a roommate who rifles through your bank statements when you’re not home or a thief who steals credit card information from a mail box, identity theft is common enough now that those “other people” are likely your relatives, friends or neighbors.

Millions of Americans every year see their credit destroyed, their bank accounts raided and their sense of well-being ripped to shreds by this pernicious crime, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Disclosures by Master Card and Lexis Nexis last week that hundreds of thousands of account numbers and Social Security and driver’s license numbers have been hacked are indications the problem is only getting worse.

South Lake Tahoe is no exception. In a matter of minutes, someone took a credit card out of JoAnn Conner’s purse while she was away from her desk at her office in 2000. The thief took the credit card on a spending spree, racking up thousands of dollars in charges.

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When the South Shore woman discovered the card was missing, she reported it to the credit card company. Two years later, after she thought the problem was solved, she discovered that her credit history had been damaged.

“It’s one of those things where you know it happens, but you don’t think about it until it happens to you,” said Conner, who has since started her own business to aid fraud victims, Pre-Paid Legal Services and Identity Theft Protection.

The identity theft was a catalyst for her starting the business, she said. And it has been going nonstop ever since with at least two or three new cases spouting up each week along the South Shore.

“Identity theft is all around us. There are crooks here looking to hack your identity, steal bills out of your box, and divert your billing information to another address,” Conner said.

El Dorado County sheriff’s office gets three to five reports of identity theft per day, while over on the Nevada side, Douglas County a few each month. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Nevada ranks second and California third in the nation for identity theft reports.

“Sometimes people are gullible,” said Douglas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tom Mezzetta. “A lot of times they’ll willingly provide their personal information to someone.”

People can pilfer personal information any number of ways, authorities point out. Scam artists send e-mails or call your home pretending to be your financial institution or telling you you’ve won money. Culprits raid trash, or break into houses or glove boxes in cars.

Anyone soliciting personal information such as a birthdate, Social Security number, or bank account numbers over the phone or e-mail should not be trusted.

“(Your bank is) not going to send an e-mail requesting information they already have on file,” Mezzetta said.

One of Conner’s clients, a 20-year-old South Shore woman, learned from a credit card company she was applying to that she had already had a credit card. Apparently a thief learned the woman’s Social Security number, got a card and racked up credit on it that hasn’t been paid.

“I’ve had people who haven’t received their IRS tax returns because someone stole their Society Security information and had the returns redirected,” Conner said.

Credit card offers should always be shredded. If you don’t get your statement, call your bank to make sure the address on file is still yours. Guard your personal information wisely. Secure your belongings and check your credit every year, said Sgt. El Dorado County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tim McNulty. Delete suspicious e-mails and call your financial institutions to make sure things aren’t astray.

Identity thieves could be your neighbor or a family member, but more and more, culprits are people who don’t even live in your state or country. Someone on the other side of the world could steal your identity. Senior citizens are especially vulnerable.

Identity theft makes up for 39 percent of fraud cases nationwide.

California outnumbers Nevada by more than 10-fold. In California in 2004, almost 44,000 cases were reported to the Federal Trade Commission. In Nevada, there were fewer than 3,000 reports. For more statistics and information on how to protect your identity, visit http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

In the world of credit card companies, you are guilty until you prove your innocence, Mezzetta said. It can be long road to recovery.

“It takes a lot of time to clear your name, and a lot of effort to prove your innocence.”

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