Identity theft costly to victims

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 21, 2011

By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — Carolyn Perez couldn’t believe it when she opened her mailbox in late September.
Before walking down the driveway to get the mail, she had been focused on two things: her job and her fiance.
But inside was a letter from the Internal Revenue Service asking for information about her 2008 W-2 form and her husband, Carlos Perez.
Carolyn Perez, who was fresh out of high school and jobless in 2008, said she was “shocked” to learn that a man from California had been filing tax returns under her Social Security number and pretending to be her husband for the last three years.
“I was just dumbfounded,” she said. “I thought, ‘How could this happen to me?’ ”
Perez’s experience is far from a rarity in a nation that saw about 11.7 million identity theft cases over a two-year period from 2007 through 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Salisbury Police Detective Brent Hall said 185 identity theft cases have been reported in Salisbury so far this year, a slight increase from the 181 reported at this time last year.
Perez said the process to reclaim her identity and repair the damage has been “frustrating,” and that, after filing a report with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 4, she still doesn’t expect the man responsible to be charged.
“They told me to file a police report here, and then they told me to file it in California,” she said. “When I called California, an officer said ‘Ma’am, I really don’t know what to tell you.’ ”
Perez said she then went to the Social Security Office and showed them her completed forms. She was told the alleged defrauder would be notified by letter that Perez was now aware of the situation.
But for Perez, a letter isn’t enough.
“They told me he would probably try to file again next year,” she said. “The only way for him to get arrested is for me to travel across country and fill out a report there.”
Perez said she was given a security code by the Social Security Office which now requires her to approve large purchases or financial document changes.
After weeks of talking to federal offices, banks and credit unions, Perez said she still has trouble sleeping because of the fear that her identity isn’t secure.
“I think, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” she asked. “Am I really going to be protected now that I have a security code?”
Perez learned of the theft of her identity less than a month before National Protect Your Identity Week, which is this week. It’s dedicated to informing the public about how to help keep financial information secure.
As a part of events going on all week, the Better Business Bureau is offering to shred documents for free at locations in Winston-Salem and Charlotte on Saturday as a part of its Secure Your ID day.
Better Business Bureau President Tom Bartholomy said the bureau, which has hosted shredding events the last six years, typically pulls in about 70,000 pounds of shredded documents. But Bartholomy said he’s anticipating an increase this year because of a growing awareness about identity theft — and a fair weather forecast.
Although it remains unclear how someone got Perez’s information, Bartholomy said in 72 percent of identity theft cases, thieves physically search through the victim’s trash for financial information.
“It’s a crime of opportunity,” he said. “We see some that target an apartment complex with a single Dumpster, or they’ll do it at certain times of the month or certain times of the year.”
Bartholomy said the focus on Internet identity theft — and the feeling that it’s almost inevitable — makes people less aware of more common and low-tech perils such as Dumpster diving.
“With online identity theft, people just throw up their hands and say ‘There’s nothing I can do about that, so there’s nothing I can do to prevent identity theft,’ ” Bartholomy said. “We try to get people to focus on the various kinds of identity theft.”
Along with shredding documents, the Better Business Bureau also encourages people to be aware of other people standing nearby when entering debit card pin numbers.
Hall, the Salisbury Police detective, said immediate action is key to minimizing the damage done by an identity thief.
“The first thing they need to do is contact their banks and cancel their cards,” Hall said. “Once that’s done, they need to fill out a fraud affidavit with the bank. Then they need to fill out a form with us at the police department.”
According to Hall, Social Security numbers can be stolen while children are infants and could be used years before a child would run a credit check.
Hall said it’s important for parents to run credit reports on their children, as well as themselves.
“You should check your credit report at least once a year,” Hall said. “You get a free check every year.”
Hall said it’s also important to check your bank accounts for unauthorized charges and check credit card statements.
“If you’re going to shred documents,” Hall said, “use the diamond shred. Those shred into the smallest form possible.”
The Better Business Bureau, in partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, will offer shredding from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at J.M. Robinson Middle School Parking lot at 5925 Ballantyne Commons Parkway, Charlotte, and the Shred-It office parking lot at 3421 Axar St., Charlotte.
An additional location will be at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum parking lot at 2825 University Parkway in Winston-Salem.
Those wishing to shred materials are limited to four bags or boxes per car.

Protect yourself
Guard your personal information to protect yourself from identity theft
• Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet.
• Give your Social Security Number (SSN) only when absolutely necessary.
• Ask why a SSN is needed, who has access to it, and how it will be kept confidential.
• Don’t print your SSN or driver’s license number on checks.
• Shred documents such as old bank statements, insurance forms, credit applications.
• Destroy receipts that show your credit card number. It’s illegal in North Carolina for a business to print the full credit card number on a customer’s electronically generated receipt.
• Limit the number of credit cards you carry.
• Watch for missing bills and review your monthly statements carefully. Contact your creditors if a bill doesn’t arrive when expected or includes charges you don’t recognize.
• Use automatic deposit for payroll, Social Security or other federal benefit checks. To sign up for automatic deposit of Social Security checks and other federal benefit payments, call 800-333-1795.
• Keep copies of credit cards (front and back) in a safe place in case a card is lost or stolen.
• Review your Social Security Earnings and Benefits Statement for errors in your yearly salary. To order a statement, call 800-772-1213.
• “Opt out” of sharing your non-public personal information or credit report information with other businesses.
• You are entitled to one free credit report each year from each nationwide credit bureau. To get your free report, go to www.annualcredit or call 877-322-8228.
• To track your credit during the year, request a free report from a different credit bureau every four months.
• Stop identity thieves from getting new credit in your name by placing a security freeze on your credit.
• All North Carolina consumers can now get free security freezes online. Identity theft victims and seniors can also get free security freezes by mail or phone.
• Avoid using easily available information for your PINs or passwords such as your mother’s maiden name, birth dates, Social Security Numbers or phone numbers.
Source: North Carolina Attorney General’s Office