Identity Theft Grips Entire Neighborhood

June 5th, 2013 | Comments Off on Identity Theft Grips Entire Neighborhood | Posted in Lifestyle

A new brand of identity theft could be coming to a neighborhood near you.

NeighborhoodTucked in a pocket of northeast Ohio, not far from Lake Erie, is a little piece of the American dream. Two-story homes of brick and stone stand in front of big backyards, surrounded by a community of neighbors who know one another, socialize and watch one another’s kids.

But just last week, a rash of identity theft rocked the quiet waters of this typical upper-middle-class suburb. Police have found 18 victims, some with tens of thousands of dollars fraudulently spent in their name. And this home development isn’t alone. At least one other Ohio community has been hit with mass identity theft. It has all the trappings of an ugly new trend.

Alison Smith* first heard the news from a neighbor. “We’re all pretty close-knit around here,” she said. “A friend reached out and said, ‘Hey, a couple of neighbors have had identity theft issues.’ ” Smith called her homeowners insurance company and found she was covered by IDentity Theft 911. She connected with fraud investigator Maria Valenzuela on the phone.

“Alison did exactly the right thing,” Valenzuela said. “She knew of five neighbors who all had multiple accounts opened around the same time. She had no fraud, but called us as a preventive measure.”

Valenzuela quickly set up a 90-day fraud alert on Smith’s credit accounts, then removed her from a national database of pre-approved credit applications. They applied the same measures to Smith’s husband’s accounts, but as it would turn out, all the victims in this case were women.

The next day Valenzuela’s phone rang again: another victim from the same northeast Ohio housing development. This one wasn’t nearly as lucky as Smith. Thirteen accounts were opened in this victim’s name: $5,000 charged at Best Buy, $4,000 at Sears, more than $700 at Victoria’s Secret. The crook bought cell phones, paid utility bills, set up cable and Internet accounts.

“First I got a letter from Victoria’s Secret thanking me for applying for a new card,” said victim No. 2, Mary Jo Sullivan*. “Then a letter came from Carson’s, then Macy’s, Sears and on and on and on.” Sullivan was traveling on business when the first few letters arrived. In those two days that the accounts went unchecked, thieves managed to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in charges.

“They got me pretty bad,” Sullivan said. “Most of the people in my development caught it in the first day, or before it started, but in my case they got away with it a lot longer.”

After a few days of frantically calling all the credit companies, utilities and cell phone companies that had opened fraudulent accounts, Sullivan realized her homeowners policy offered identity protection services. Valenzuela picked up the torch again, making calls on Sullivan’s behalf, and got her squared away with police reports and credit bureaus, and put a freeze on all new credit activity.

“This information was compromised from one source,” Valenzuela said. While it might be quick to pinpoint stolen mail or home break-ins where documents are taken, that never happened in this community. And even if it did, Valenzuela said, thieves aren’t likely to get the volume of personally identifiable information that was clearly exposed here. “The damages wouldn’t have been this large-scale, this serious,” she said.

All clues point to the homebuilder, according to police. “Whenever you apply for a mortgage, that broker has all your information, so we’re probably looking at a breach or theft from the purchasing agent in that development,” Valenzuela said.

The local police told Alison Smith as much. Just a few days after calling IDentity Theft 911 and having a fraud alert set up, the thieves struck. AT&T called on a Saturday, confirming that she was setting up new service. AT&T called again, from another store location, an hour later. Smith told the agent she’d been a victim of identity theft and asked for information on the purchaser, but was told they couldn’t release personal information. “That’s my information!” Smith said. “They tried to make me out to be a criminal, because I’m asking for information on the person stealing my life.”

The fraud alert worked. The two AT&T applications were denied. A T-Mobile and a Sprint application were denied. A Kohl’s card was denied. But Verizon let five iPhones slip through. “When I talked to Verizon customer service, she came right out and said they’re not as diligent with online orders as they should be,” Smith told me.

Cell phone and store charge cards are common targets for thieves, Valenzuela said. Retailers often prioritize moving merchandise out the door over security. Most of the purchases in Smith’s case were made in Tulsa, Okla. Though the investigation is still pending, police said it likely will trace back to a crooked employee at the homebuilders office, which handled the mortgages for the entire development.

Smith, for her part, dodged a bullet, getting her accounts protected before the criminals dialed in. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.

“I don’t know what I would have done without Maria,” Smith said. “She’s done everything. She put all the paperwork in place to get the freezes. She was on the line with AT&T and sent letters to all three credit bureaus. I would have been lost without her.”

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the victim’s privacy.

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Vacation Tips For Your Protection

June 5th, 2013 | Comments Off on Vacation Tips For Your Protection | Posted in Lifestyle

As You Head Out for Vacation, Protect Your Home and Your Identity Against Burglars

Burglars who break into your home this summer may be after more than your jewelry and electronic equipment—they may also steal your identity. As you prepare to leave on vacation, it is important to protect yourself against both a physical and a virtual break-in, according to the Insurance Information Institute(I.I.I.).

Most burglaries occur in July and August and homeowners insurance claims due to theft total about $1 billion annually, with the average claim around $2,500.

“Once in your home, a burglar can easily obtain credit card information, social security numbers or other identification information by going over personal documents in a home or stealing the family computer,” said Loretta Worters, vice president for the I.I.I.

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing white collar crimes in the country, according to the Federal Trade Commission, with more than nine million victims annually. The crime takes many forms. Identity thieves may rent an apartment, obtain a credit card, or establish a telephone account in a person’s name. The victims may not find out about the theft until they review their credit report or a credit card statement and notice charges they did not make—or until they are contacted by a debt collector. Losses to credit cards average $7,000, and while victims are generally only liable for the first $50 for each card, they may also end up spending hundreds of dollars and many days repairing damage to their good name and credit record. Some victims may lose out on job opportunities, or be denied loans for education, housing or cars because of negative information on their credit reports. In rare cases, they may even be arrested for crimes they did not commit.

The I.I.I. recommends following these preventive measures to keep your home safe:

  • Keep your home well lit. Mount exterior lights in your yard or on your house so that they are out of reach of would-be burglars. Put indoor lights on a timer.
  • Make it time-consuming to break into your home. Dead-bolt window and door locks can slow a burglar down. You may qualify for a discount of 2 to 5 percent on your insurance policy for installing these devices.
  • Make it noisy to break into your home. Invest in a burglar alarm. The most effective systems ring at an outside service, which alerts the police, fire or other emergency service. A sophisticated alarm system could result in insurance discounts of 15 to 20 percent.
  • Make sure you have strong doors. Outside doors and frames should be made of metal or solid hardwood and be at least 1¾-inches thick and each door must fit its frame securely. Even the best lock will not deter a burglar if it is installed in a weak door. Garage doors also need strong locks. If you have a tool shed, keep it locked since burglars can use the tools to break into your home.
  • Turn off your computer and disconnect it from the Internet. If you save personal information in your computer, make sure it is difficult to access. You do not want a hacker at work while you are on vacation.
  • Keep valuables in a secure location. When possible, do not leave personal documents in your home office or desk—burglars know to look for them there. Keep important documents, expensive jewelry and other items in a safety deposit box in a bank or other secure location.

As you prepare to leave on vacation follow these additional steps:

  • Have mail and packages picked up, forwarded or held by the post office. Also, stop newspaper deliveries and ask a neighbor to pick-up circulars for you.
  • Leave blinds or curtains open in their usual position. This will make it appear that you are at home.
  • Ask a neighbor for help. Ask a neighbor you trust to keep an eye on your home while you are away. Make arrangements for your lawn to be mowed. Only tell people you know and trust that you are going away.

Insurance is available for identity theft, providing reimbursement to victims for the cost of restoring their identity and repairing credit reports. Some companies include it as part of their homeowners insurance policy. Others sell it as a stand-alone policy or as an endorsement to a homeowners or renters insurance policy. Typical policies cost between $25 and $65 a year for $25,000 to $30,000 worth of coverage, but vary by company. Identity theft insurance provides reimbursement for expenses such as phone bills, lost wages, notary and certified mailing costs and sometimes attorney fees with the prior consent of the insurer. Some companies offer resolution or restoration services that will guide you in the process of recovering your identity.

Standard homeowners insurance policies provide coverage for theft of personal possessions and damage to the home caused by the break-in. With replacement cost coverage, which is only about 10 percent more than actual cash value coverage, damaged property is replaced without deducting for depreciation.

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When Your Life is an Open (Face)book

June 5th, 2013 | Comments Off on When Your Life is an Open (Face)book | Posted in Lifestyle

Survey says young people most vulnerable – Zach Gonzalez, a game designer based in Irvine, Calif., was scanning his Facebook home page when an instant message popped up.

Zach Gonzalez, a game designer based in Irvine, Calif., was scanning his Facebook home page when an instant message popped up. It was an elementary school friend asking for a couple hundred dollars: “Hey dude, I’m stuck in Vegas and I have no one else to call.”

“Yeah, right,” thought Gonzalez, 27. Although they were friends on Facebook, they weren’t close in real life and hadn’t seen each other in at least five years. Gonzalez called the man’s brother, who hadn’t heard anything about a Vegas trip gone awry. As Gonzalez suspected, the story was bogus. His old friend’s Facebook page had been taken over by a scammer.

Gonzalez was savvy enough to smell a rat. But many social media users — particularly young people — are blissfully unaware of the potential for fraud. Like Gonzalez’s friend, they fall prey to account hijackings when they unwittingly give phishers their user names and passwords. Others post the kind of information that makes them more vulnerable to identity theft. Oversharing — giving away too much information about oneself, such as favorite hangouts, movies and shared experiences — can be exploited by con artists hoping to get just close enough to lure a trusting “friend” into trouble.

An Identity Theft 911 survey shows that people ages 18 to 24 are the heaviest users of social media, and this demographic also tends to be the most oblivious about the dangers. More troubling, as a group they also don’t seem to be particularly bothered about surrendering their privacy so easily and so quickly. The survey, conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media Omnibus Services from March 5-7, found that 84.6 percent of young people belonged to an online social network, like Facebook, MySpace or Bebo, compared with 28.3 percent of those ages 50 to 64.

This younger age group also was more likely to post information potentially useful to scammers. (Some 81 percent posted their birth dates, for example.) Thieves mine social networking profiles for information they can use to guess passwords or answers to security questions (“What is my favorite band’s name?”) on accounts and Web sites. Or they use something as simple as a birth date in conjunction with other information they already have to open credit card accounts.

Criminals who specialize in breaking and entering might have reason to take interest in the 28 percent of young people surveyed who post their travel plans (thus alerting outsiders when their home might be vacant). Some 20 percent posted a specific time when they would be at a specific place. Meanwhile, about 8 percent of people ages 50 to 64 shared travel plans and only 5 percent revealed specific locations.

Young people were more likely than other age group to have experienced problems with social media Web sites, like the takeover of Gonzalez’s friend’s account. While 17 percent of total respondents had social media accounts misused, about 27 percent of young people had that happen.

Despite their problems online, young people like Alysha Nakamoto of Peoria, Ariz., seemed least concerned about fraud through social networking. Unless she’s playing volleyball or sleeping, Nakamoto is on Facebook via her Blackberry. The 17-year-old updates her status “probably 20 times a day” for more than 500 friends, she says. But she and her friends think little about potential risks associated with sharing information, like a full birth date, so freely.

“To be honest, we just don’t worry about [oversharing],” she says. “We feel like we’re invincible on the Internet.”

Jason Boone, a research assistant at the National White Collar Crime Center, says he believes older adults are more careful about privacy issues.

“The age group around 30 or 35 and under … they are all just a little less aware of how all of this has changed from 30 or 40 years ago,” Boone says.

Kathy Hubbell, a public relations consultant who teaches a social media class as an adjunct professor at Oregon’s Marylhurst University, agrees.

She says students in her class range from their 20s to their 60s. And one noteworthy difference among the younger ones and older ones, she says, is how they feel about privacy issues in social media and on the Internet in general.

“The older students understand a lot more about privacy,” she says. “They remember what it was like when it existed.”

Tips

Social Media 101:
  • Use strong passwords made up of numbers, letters and symbols and change them often. Use different passwords for your social Web sites, personal life and financial life.
  • Don’t accept friend requests from strangers simply to try to have higher “friend” numbers on Facebook.
  • Be careful about clicking on links on social media Web sites. They could lead to malicious code being automatically installed on your computer. And be aware that even photos can contain viruses and other things that can do damage.
  • Log out of any social-networking site when not in use. Use different log-ins for various sites.
  • Consider how much of your identifying information is posted on these sites. Are there photos that show the entire layout of your apartment and everything in it? Is your full birth date disclosed? Oversharing is a bad idea for many reasons.

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