According to data from the Federal Trade Commission, someone in the United States was the victim of identity theft every 15 seconds in 2012.
Nearly half of the more than 2 million cases reported last year involved government benefits fraud, with another 13 percent involving credit card fraud. While the type of fraud differs, experts say people can follow a few simple tips to reduce their risk of becoming victims.
“People need to be careful,” said Lynne Vieraitis, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas focusing on identity theft. “Anytime someone is a victim of a purse-snatching or is pick-pocketed, or if their house is burglarized, they need to make sure their personal data wasn’t stolen. Make sure you report the theft to the police and credit card companies and monitor your credit report and bank statements.”
Vieraitis co-authored a 2012 book titled “Identity Thieves: Motives and Methods,” for which 59 federal inmates serving time for identity theft-related crimes were interviewed. Vieraitis said she learned that while there are high-tech and low-tech thieves, the one thing they all need is personal data. Once they get the required information, applying for credit cards or taking out loans is not that difficult.
“Credit card companies and banks have gotten pretty good at alerting you of suspicious activity on your account, but people still need to be careful,” she said. “If you are worried, you can place a freeze on your credit so that anyone applying for credit in your name will have to get your approval.”
To help prevent identity theft, Plano Police Department Officer Mark Dawson routinely holds public meetings where he shares tips people can use to help secure their data. The next meeting, which is free but requires registration through the Plano Parks and Recreation Department, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Liberty Recreation Center, 2601 Glencliff Drive.
“We read the crime reports all the time, and the same things are happening each time in identity theft cases,” he said. “There are about 10 ways identities are typically compromised, and if you can cut those out, you can prevent a lot of the cases.”
Dawson, who works in the department’s crime prevention unit, said in many cases involving women, the identities are stolen because the victim’s purse was left unattended.
“Women leave their purses unattended all the time in the grocery store or leave their purses draped across the back of their chair at a restaurant,” he said. “It is just easy stuff for the thieves.”
While more people own paper shredders to shred documents such as bills and invoices, Dawson said additional steps can be taken to minimize the risk of being victimized.
“What you throw away can be used against you,” he said. “We are programmed to shred anything that has a company name, personal name, account number. … However, when you get an email from a family member, it often includes names, addresses and phone numbers, and all of that stuff can get piecemealed together to steal an identity. In the police we like to say, ‘When in doubt, dial 911.’ Well, with identify theft, ‘When in doubt, shred it.’”
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