By Karen Williamson

KARENW@CULLMANTIMES.COM

Experts agree shredding mail, paying bills and viewing bank statements online, picking up new check orders at the bank and mailing bills at the post office are ways to stop identity theft.

If people take those steps, they will have reduced their risk for identity theft considerably, according to Federal Trade Commission attorney Paul Davis from Atlanta who was one of the experts at the 2007 Scam Jam Wednesday at City Hall.

“That right there will eliminate a certain percentage of identity theft,” he said.

Paying bills online requires the use of anti-virus software and firewalls on personal computers, and both have to be updated regularly, he said.

Davis recommends contacting one of the three consumer reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — every four months to request a free credit report.

“Federal law allows you to get free copies of each one every year,” he said.

That way people will know quickly if there is a problem. Ten to 15 percent of identity theft victims don’t realize their information has been stolen for three years, said Davis.

He also recommended people use the Annual Credit Report Web site, www.annualcreditreport.com, to obtain a free report rather than the commercial site, Free Credit Report, which is going to try to sell consumers something.

Using or creating a new credit card account is the most common type of fraud.

Five percent of stolen identities originate from a stolen piece of mail. The secret service recently said the number is 25 percent.

“Whether a small amount or large amount, stolen mail is a source of identity theft,” said Davis.

Davis called identity theft a “preventable crime.”

“If you can stop them from getting information, then they cannot use it.”

To stop many pre-approved credit card offers, call 1-888-5-OPT-OUT or go to www.optoutprescreen.com.

Cullman County District Attorney Wilson Blaylock was also on the panel.

Talking about identity theft, he said, “A lot of times, it’s family members,” said Blaylock. “It’s a growing problem.”

If anyone obtains any type of identifying information and uses it for their benefit, that is identity theft, Blaylock said.

If information has been stolen, the experts said to call the police and file a report, call the three credit bureaus, then call your credit card companies and bank.

Resident Gary Lusdon attended the event. He asked the panel what the penalties were for identity theft.

“I am game for penalties and lethal injection,” he said drawing laughter.

Blaylock said the person committing the theft might be on a phone in New Jersey or in Cullman.

“We have to have jurisdiction,” he said. “Finding these people and serving them, that is the most difficult part of prosecution.”

“I can’t imagine doing something that would damage a person more than this,” Lusdon said.

Better Business Bureau President and Chief Executive Officer Michele McDaniel hosted the event. She recommended shredding documents; but if that is not possible, placing dirty diapers or rotten food with sensitive mail will prevent people from stealing it.

McDaniel gave an example of identity theft fraud known as phishing.

She said a woman thought she was getting a text message from a global internet service provider claiming her access was going to be denied unless she provided account information because her credit card number matched that of another customer. The scammer provided a link to a Web site that looked like the internet service provider’s site. The woman provided personal information such as credit card information.

The company later told the woman they would never ask for information like that online.

Another identity theft fraud is known as pretexting.

“It’s the notion of someone calling you with a little bit of information,” said Davis. “The person pretends to be a customer, or parent, son or daughter, and asks for more information. Eventually, they might get enough information to steal someone’s identity.”

Davis said scam artists might call a bank with the name and address of a deceased customer obtained from an obituary and request a copy of the last bank statement claiming the deceased had property in another state and the statement will help settle the will quicker. Or the thief might request a copy of a death certificate from a coroner or funeral home which has a social security number on it.

“It’s a violation of federal law if you did (provide the information),” said Davis.

Cullman City Police Chief Kenny Culpepper also sat on the panel. He said identity theft can be low tech.

He gave an example of a bank branch in a mall that was closed after hours. A man dressed as a guard posted a sign stating the overnight deposit was out of order and to leave deposits with the guard.

People left their money with the guard, said Culpepper, drawing laughter.

ATMs are another source of scams in larger cities.

“ATMs now don’t have to be owned by the banks,” said Blaylock.

Once a card is inserted, the machine records the card’s information. A screen may say the machine is temporarily out of money or malfunctioning.

Thieves can cart off the equipment and turn around and sell that information, said Blaylock.

At restaurants, waiters may carry scimmers to obtain credit card information. Once the waiter leaves your sight, “that information is out of your control,” said Davis.

Seven percent of those 65 and over have their identities stolen in Alabama while the national figure is 6 percent, but Davis said the elderly are not being picked on disproportionately in identity theft crimes.

“The elderly people who have the money are the people who are going to have their identity stolen,”

He is more concerned about those 18 and under. While only 5 percent in that age bracket have their identities stolen in Alabama and nationwide, theft in that age group is “exploding,” said Davis.

“The number has doubled in the last couple of years,” he said.

Davis said another anomaly in Alabama involved stolen personal information used in the preparation of government documents such as false tax returns.

Alabama had 18 percent while the national average is 10 percent.

While he can’t explain the reason for increased numbers, he said the police chief or district attorney through knowledge of Cullman demographics might be able to put some meaning behind the numbers.

For example, he said they might look at illegal immigration to determine if there is an issue there.

“Identity theft is going down, but it is still the elephant in the room,” said Davis.

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