More than 30 senior citizens gathered at the Euchee Creek Senior Center on Wednesday to learn how to keep their personal information from getting into the wrong person's hands.
"It is really a pain in the neck for people who are victims of identity theft. It costs you a whole lot of time, a whole lot of heartache," Columbia County sheriff's Investigator Shawn Merzlak told the group during a seminar about how to avoid being the victim of identity theft.
"Y'all spent your whole life paying bills on time, doing the best you can, working hard. Why should someone be able to just come into your life and steal your information and ruin your credit in a matter of a couple of days?''
Martha L. Bennett said her daughter's identity was stolen by someone who used her credit to build a large home near Grovetown.
"We have paid turmoil with this," said Bennett, who attended the seminar. "It has been rough."
Bennett said her daughter has battled in court for more than two years to clear her name and credit.
Merzlak said identity theft and fraud are growing problems, especially with the rapid development of new technology.
In 2005, 403 financial crimes, including identity theft and fraud, forgery and deposit account fraud, were reported to the sheriff's office. That grew by more than 45 percent in 2006 with 587 reports of financial crimes, according to sheriff's office records. From 2005 to 2006, reported cases of identity theft grew from 11 to 60, and cases of identity fraud rose from 129 to 159.
Merzlak said the first step to deter identity thieves is to safeguard personal information, which includes the person's name, date of birth, credit and banking account numbers, passwords and Social Security numbers.
"Protect your Social Security numbers," Merzlak told the group, adding that all Social Security numbers should be removed from drivers licenses and checks. "... Keep it in your head and keep it locked away, because that is the key to your credit history right there.''
Mezlak urged those at the seminar to shred all financial documents, to avoid personal information being found in the garbage and to never leave mail or checkbooks in vehicles where they can be easily stolen.
He said people should never give out personal information to anyone over the phone or Internet either. Potential identity thieves try to access personal information by calling and requesting personal information after stating there has been some fraudulent activity on an account, he said.
"Make sure you know exactly who you are dealing with when you talk to somebody on the phone," Merzlak said. "If you have any questions about it, call the company."
Merzlak said people should monitor their bills and mail, inspect financial statements for unauthorized purchases or fees and inspect reports from the three credit reporting agencies annually.
Merzlak said scams often directed at seniors include those offering low-interest loans and lottery scams, both of which often require a wire transfer of "a fee" to process the winnings or loan.
"Just remember this, if you didn't actually go out and buy a ticket at a gas station for the Georgia Lottery and somebody calls or sends you anything in the mail saying you won the lottery, you didn't win the lottery," Merzlak said.
COMMON WAYS IDENTITY THEFT HAPPENS
- Dumpster diving: Thieves can rummage through trash, looking for bills or other paper with personal information.
- Skimming: Thieves can steal credit/debit card numbers by using a special storage device when processing a card.
- Phishing: This occurs when someone pretends to be with a financial institution or company and sends spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal your personal information.
- Changing your address: Someone diverts your billing statements to another location by completing a "change of address" form.
- "Old-fashioned" stealing: Someone steals wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; or new checks or tax information.
IDENTITY THEFT INFORMATION
- Visit www.ftc.gov/idtheft
- Call the Federal Trade Commission at (877) ID-THEFT
- Call the Columbia County Sheriff's Office at (706) 541-1044
Source: The Federal Trade Commission
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