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Vigilance necessary to prevent identity theft

Posted: November 2, 2013 - 11:02pm
Columbia Sheriff's Office fraud investigator Capt. Clay Smith takes a call as he looks over some of the reports of scams that have been sent to his office.   Photo by Jim Blaylock
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Columbia Sheriff's Office fraud investigator Capt. Clay Smith takes a call as he looks over some of the reports of scams that have been sent to his office.

Financial identity theft is on the rise and authorities say there’s a lot residents can do to prevent becoming a victim.

Would-be thieves are trying to get money or a person’s personal information to get access to their money, Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Clay Smith said.

“Do not give out any information,” Smith said. “No date of birth, no Social Security number, no credit card number. ... Guard (personal information) with your life.”

Smith said the number of reported identify thefts rose from 113 cases from January through July of 2011 to 150 cases in the first half of 2012. During the same time period this year, the sheriff’s office has responded to 158 cases.

“It’s steadily increasing,” Smith said.

Most victims of identity theft don’t report them, Smith said, because they are embarrassed or they just don’t realize they have been scammed.

No one particular demographic group is a typical target of scam artists trying to get personal information.

“Anybody that will give their information,” Smith said. “Anybody that will bite.”

These scam artists are always coming up with new ways to sucker information out of unwitting residents. It’s possible that they can hack into Web sites, company databases or social media Web sites, or even dig through someone’s garbage in an effort to obtain personal information such as Social Security numbers and bank account and credit card information.

Usually, they are more direct.

“The main problem is the individual giving it out,” Smith said. “It’s so easy to get somebody’s information.”

With personal information, thieves can set up fake identities, apply for loans and credit cards or simply use another’s credit or debit card to pay for a shopping spree.

Never respond to e-mails, phone calls or anyone at your door requesting to “verify” your personal information or banking information. Your bank, credit card company, online payment system and government agencies, including the new government healthcare exchange, will not call or e-mail for confidential information – they already have it.

Some would-be thieves are sneaky and try to get people to voluntarily send them money or provide the information.

They’ll send e-mails, letters or even call people claiming to be law enforcement or other government personnel. They’ll say the person failed to show up for jury duty or owe for a speeding ticket. They threaten residents with being arrested if they don’t pay a fine immediately. Some accept credit card, debit card or account numbers, while others make their victims get pre-paid cash cards.

Other scammers will claim a family member is trapped in another country and needs cash. Other scammers claim they need financial help of some kind and ask that you cash a check for them, keep a portion and send them the rest via Western Union or other cash-transfer service. Many times, the cash needs to be sent to another country.

Yet even more scammers get people to believe they’ve won the lottery, sometimes in another country, and need to pay a fine to receive their winnings.

Many con artists are very smooth talkers and can be quite convincing, Smith said.

“All of that should be a tip-off,” Smith said, adding that residents need to be skeptical and verify facts before providing information or sending money to anyone.

“When in doubt, don’t give it out.”

Be aware of strangers, even those claiming to be utility or government workers or those selling home repairs, or other salespeople. Smith said a common scam is for one person to get into a person’s home and distract the homeowner while an accomplice comes in and steals credit cards and other things of value.

Yet other scams involve cashiers at retail stores adding a “cash-back” amount to credit or debit card purchases and pocketing the money.

“If you go to Wal-Mart and you shop, especially if you buy a large amount of items, you need to look at the receipt before you leave,” Smith said.

Would-be thieves are always coming up with new scams, ploys, diversions and other ways to fleece unsuspecting residents out of their money.

Smith said people need to be vigilant about protecting their personal information and skeptical about anyone asking for money.

“The goal is money, period,” Smith said. “When in doubt, call us. If they are skeptical about something, they can call us.”

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