When It Comes To ID Theft, Personal Responsibility Is The Key To Protecting

When It Comes To ID Theft, Personal Responsibility Is The Key To Protecting

Virtually everyone who can speak with authority on the subject says identity theft is a major problem globally and locally. In the United States alone, it affects millions of people annually, yet, for those who are yet to be victimized, it can feel like a distant issue.

Identity theft is when an individual assumes another person’s identity to commit fraud. This is done by accessing and using information such as a name, social security number, address, etc. Local sources tell The Newtown Bee the first and best way to prevent identity theft is taking personal responsibility for your personal information — especially anything that might exist on the internet.

Representatives from the Newtown Police Department, financial institutions such as Newtown Savings Bank, and Connecticut’s attorney general are among those echoing how very important it is for people to protect their personal information, especially as the number of identity theft cases continues to increase.

Law enforcement can certainly help, and will regularly solve select and solvable identity theft cases, but as Newtown Deputy Police Chief Bryon Bishop summed up, police and the government have “finite resources — and this is an infinite problem.”

On a national level, the number of fraud and identity theft cases has increased significantly over the past five years.

According to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Consumer Sentinel Network, the number of fraud and identity theft reports has been steadily increasing since 2001. The report targets a sudden and drastic increase between 2019 to 2020 when cases more than doubled, reaching 4.72 million.

The trend in Newtown is similar, Bishop said.

The latest data supplied to The Bee by the NPD shows that from 2021 to 2022 the number of annual fraud cases roughly doubled from 122 to 236. As of August 10 of this year, Bishop said, this number is still increasing — there were already nearly a dozen more cases as of August 11 than in all of 2022. And that number has trended up several more cases since.

Across Connecticut, consumers reported losing $57.5 million to fraud and scams last year, compared to $40.9 million in 2021. Scammers were successful in taking larger sums from consumers in 2022 as well.

And while the total number of these fraud complaints declined last year to 18,340 from more than 21,000 in 2021, the average consumer reported losing $670 compared to $460 a year prior, according to the FTC.

The cases in Newtown only represent a fraction of the issue nationally, although the rapidly increasing case load on local police is no less challenging.

Nobody Is Immune

That’s why, despite the constant drumbeat of advisories and warnings from law enforcement agencies, to banks and organizations such as AARP, Connecticut’s Dept of Consumer Protection, and the Better Business Bureau, Bishop believes there are always more things people can do to both educate and protect themselves.

At any moment, identity theft can affect anyone. There’s a new victim of identity theft every two seconds, according to a 2022 study by California’s Javelin Strategy & Research — a firm servicing fraud and security clients.

A few weeks ago, Newtown’s deputy police chief even saw a close family member nearly become a victim of fraud.

Bishop told The Bee his grandmother received a call saying that he had been in an accident, was arrested, and she needed to pay for his bond. The scammer instilled fear by saying his nose was broken. And they made their claims sound legit by giving her a police case number.

Bishop quickly called his grandmother to reassure her, “I work in a building with a jail — I’m not in jail.”

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong recently related that he had also been a victim of attempted identity theft. Hearing these stories, you may think you are doing all the right things to protect yourself, but scammers are becoming more sophisticated.

Identity theft and fraud are not just the scam phone calls, texts and e-mails people receive all the time. The issue goes way beyond that.

Fraud and identity theft can start out small.

Vernal Chong, information security officer of Newtown Savings Bank points out that crooks can begin stringing random pieces of personal information that may be available online — not necessarily on the dark web, either.

The NSB official said it can be a “very basic piece of information, things that we might not think about like social security number, or your date of birth, [combined] with other little things like e-mail address or an account number.”

From here, it can quickly spiral out of control. The question is, how are scammers getting this information?

A long history of data breaches has provided criminals with an endless supply of personal information, especially on the dark web.

Kaspersky, a private international cybersecurity company, characterizes the dark web as a hidden collective of internet sites only accessible by a specialized web browser. It is used for keeping internet activity anonymous and private, which can be helpful in both legal and illegal applications.

Additionally, people tend to give out a lot of their information, especially on social media. Chong at NSB said, “any time I see my friends putting their birthday on Facebook, I cringe, because that’s one data point that’s out there in the public.” A birthday may sound harmless, but scammers can find ways to use it.

Lock Your Car

Newtown Police are continuing to warn about more localized ways of obtaining personal information that can be used or sold.

NPD Lieutenant Scott Smith said there have been recent cases of people breaking into cars to steal personal information. The thieves can get it from documents, phones, laptops, tablets, or mail, and especially from purses, wallets, briefcases, and backpacks left in unlocked vehicles.

The Newtown Police Department urges residents to lock all vehicle doors at all times, and refrain from keeping any identifying objects or personal information in their vehicles while unattended except required paperwork such as registration and insurance verification cards.

Bishop also pointed out that even the US Postal Service has been experiencing growing vulnerabilities.

There is an escalating number of cases involving the theft of “blue” street corner mail collection box keys, robbing postal carriers, and thieves intercepting both critical identity data and banking information from personal outgoing mail left at residential mail boxes.

He said in Newtown, criminals have been going through mailboxes to find checks, which they will modify through a process called washing or bleaching — and profiting from it by changing the payee and increasing the amount of the remittance. To best protect yourself, Bishop recommends you do not, under any circumstances, send checks through the mail.

While this is certainly a significant inconvenience, and even impossible in certain situations, shifting as many of ones’ financial interactions to secure channels on the internet as possible (as an alternative to using paper checks) will go far toward protecting your bank accounts and your identity.

But, Smith said, the best way to prevent identity theft is to simply be alert — scrutinize bank and credit card statements or check banking and credit card activity frequently; don’t leave important documents where they can be stolen; and verify who you are speaking with before giving them any information over the phone, through e-mails, texting, or on the internet.

If you receive a call from the bank or credit card company, Bishop says, simply hang up and call the institution’s official phone number. And don’t be fooled if the caller ID says the caller is from a government, police, or utility agency, because scammers can program those agency names into their calls and text messages.

Even if an official sounding call comes through and you engage, the surefire way to know you are being scammed is in the way a purported credit card company, utility, or even a police agency requests you to pay them.

“First of all, the more urgent the request for a payment, the more likely it’s a scam,” Bishop said. And as far as a means of payment is concerned, he assures Newtown residents, “No legitimate entity will ever request payment with gift cards.”

Bishop also said individuals may consider subscribing to some type of verified commercial service that can assist with credit protection. Some such services are even offering services to regularly scan the dark web for pieces of your identity. It may cost a few dollars a month, but having the virtual equivalent of a second set of eyes on your credit and banking activity, as well as how your name and information might be circulating on the dark web could help save you from losing thousands.

Unemployment Fraud Epidemic

When considering some of the highest trending types of recent identity theft and related fraud, Bishop and Smith point to unemployment scams. In the three-month period between May 1 and August 2 of this year, Bishop said Newtown Police registered nearly one case of unemployment fraud per day, and complaints about that specific crime make up over half of the fraud cases registered so far in 2023.

So, if you receive an unexpected notification from the Connecticut Department of Labor, it’s probably not a formality or mistake — and Bishop advises you to act immediately.

On July 19, Connecticut Department of Labor (CTDOL) Commissioner Danté Bartolomeo reached out warning Connecticut employers and residents of an uptick in unemployment benefits fraud due to identity theft. Connecticut is among states being targeted by criminals who are flooding the unemployment system using stolen identities to file for benefits.

During the pandemic, Bartolomeo said stolen identities were available on the dark web for about one dollar. And criminals are obviously still mining this resource to purchase names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, and other personal information that they use to apply for credit cards, bank loans, and unemployment benefits. At that point, Connecticut’s unemployment system was receiving several thousand claims per day; CTDOL suspects around 75 percent were fraudulent and is withholding payment.

“CTDOL takes immediate action to notify employers when someone has filed against them, as a result, employers are often the first to know that an identity was stolen,” Bartolomeo said. “In many cases, that employee still works for them. Victims of ID theft also receive a notice of monetary determination, a notification that alerts them that someone has filed a claim using their identity. It’s critical that employers and employees report this fraud to CTDOL so we can protect benefits and the Trust Fund from fraud.”

Upon receiving an unemployment claim, ReEmployCT, the state’s unemployment tax and benefits system, automatically sends employers a notice that a claim has been filed against them. If an employer receives a notification for an employee who still works for the company, it is an identity theft red flag.

Employers should respond quickly to these notices and the victim of ID theft should report this on the CTDOL Identity Theft Report form and with local law enforcement. Filling out the ID theft form helps CTDOL protect the victim’s future unemployment benefits; it is available in English and Spanish.

Residents should also report identity theft to CTDOL if they receive a monetary determination letter or a 1099 tax form from CTDOL but have not filed for unemployment benefits.

CTDOL’s Fraud Watch webpage has comprehensive information on preventing, reporting, and recovering from fraud and identity theft. Click on the “Fraud Detection” link at portal.ct.gov/dol/Divisions/Integrity/

Additionally, information for employers is found on the ReEmployCT employer page.

Resources Abound

Though identity theft and related fraud scams are becoming more sophisticated, there are ways to identify when you are being victimized. For more information about identity theft and how you can protect yourself, you can visit the Newtown Police Department Facebook page or the Newtown Savings Bank on Instagram.

Newtown consumers are encouraged to review resources to avoid identity theft, and understand what to do if they are a victim of identity theft by visiting Connecticut’s Dept of Consumer Protection at: portal.ct.gov/DCP/Common-Elements/Common-Elements/Identity-Theft-Information-and-Resources — or identitytheft.gov .

AG Tong has said in numerous interviews if it can happen to him, it can happen to you.

“What I’ve seen is usually people opening credit cards, opening loan accounts, and then trying to access banking information,” Tong said. “People have tried it with me and, so far, hopefully, have not been successful. But I’ve seen people try to open credit cards in my name. It’s happened in the past year, actually.”

Connecticut residents may be luckier than most living in a state that established the very first unit in an attorney general’s office anywhere in the country that focuses on data breaches and privacy.

Tong’s office also offers the following tips:

Monitor Your Credit Report: Federal law requires the three major credit reporting agencies to provide you with one free copy of your credit report each year. By periodically requesting your copy from these agencies, you can make sure no one is opening credit cards or taking out loans under your name.

You can obtain free copies of your credit report from the three major credit reporting bureaus by writing to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, PO Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. Make sure to specify which bureau you want your report from or use the form available at consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0155-free-credit-reports.

You can also visit annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.

Before You Make A Purchase Online With A Credit Card: Verify the identity, physical address and phone number of the seller in case issues arise with the sale.

And the FTC advises: “If you get an email or pop-up message that asks for your financial information while you’re browsing, don’t reply or follow the link. Legitimate companies don’t ask for information that way.”

Victim Support

If you are a victim of identity theft:

*Contact your banks and credit card companies.

*Place a fraud alert and/or a more stringent “security freeze” on your credit report.

*You can contact one of the major credit reporting agencies to place a fraud alert on their credit report, and that agency will contact the other two. Once placed, an alert requires that a business verify your identity before issuing credit in your name. Fraud alerts are free and remain for 90 days, unless you renew the alert.

*If you prefer to place the more stringent security freeze on your credit report, you must contact all three credit reporting agencies individually. While the credit reporting agencies may charge a fee for placing and lifting security freezes, once a freeze is in place the credit reporting agencies cannot release any of your information to would-be creditors without your express authorization.

*File a police report. Connecticut law allows victims of identity theft to report identity theft to the law enforcement agency where they reside, and to obtain a copy of the report.

*If your personal information was compromised online, contact the Internet Crime Complaint Center to file a complaint at: ic3.gov.

You may also file a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General Consumer Assistance Unit by completing a complaint form at ct.gov/ag.

Editor John Voket contributed to this feature. Maia Labbe is a Newtown resident and journalist intern representing the University of Florida/Gainesville, whose work is funded through a grant from the New England Newspaper & Press Association (NENPA).

Source link

Scroll to Top