North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

January 23, 2013

Identity theft on increase, local police say

By Melanie Patterson
North Jefferson News

GARDENDALE — It is not a matter of whether one’s identity will be stolen, but when.

That is according to Det. Chris Clark of the Garden­dale Police Depart­ment, who gave a class on identity theft Tuesday at First Baptist Church of Mt. Olive — something he does often in the area.

Members of the audience seemed shocked to learn how easy it is for less-than-honest people to steal their identities, and thus, access to their bank and credit card accounts.

Clark gave examples of identity theft victims in Gardendale, including a stranger who opened a business in a local man’s name, attempts to open credit cards in peoples’ names, and one person who had two individuals in other states living under her identity.

“They’re doing it, and we’re working it,” Clark said. “These reports come in daily to me, all with a different story. We’re doing these talks because a lot of this can be avoided.”

One of the most common scams is phishing, where an unscrupulous person or organization uses email in an attempt to acquire money or information such as passwords, user names or credit card information by pretending to be a trustworthy entity such as a bank.

“There’s a billion dollar business in this kind of fraud,” Clark said. “A lot of it is going overseas and there’s nothing we can do.”

Clark said to never give personal or account information in response to an email. He said banks and most reputable companies do not send emails asking individuals to update or verify their accounts.

Crooks also use the telephone to contact potential victims. The bad guys might ask for charitable donations that go right to their own pockets. They also might say the victim has won a prize or a contest that requires a processing fee, but the individual who pays the fee never receives their prize.

Again, Clark says to just hang up the phone in these cases.

“Anything that sounds too good to be true on a phone call, probably is,” he said.

While individuals can take steps to lessen their chance of becoming victims of identity theft, there are other scams that are more difficult to avoid.

One of the most common — and one that has hit north Jefferson County hard recently — is skimming. This is where a small device, a skimmer, is placed onto gas pumps, ATMs, at cash registers or other locations. The skimmer records the card’s information when the owner swipes or inserts the card.

“As soon as they’ve got that information, they can make a card with their name on it — and your information,” Clark said. So the money comes out of the victim’s bank account or credit card account.

“This is happening daily in Gardendale,” Clark said. A retail store in the city had a skimmer at one of its cash registers that recently took information from thousands of cards before it was detected. It was there for more than a month, he said.

One bank alone reported $165,000 stolen through the operation in one afternoon.

The information from the cards was sent to California, where crooks manufactured credit and debit cards that were used throughout California and Las Vegas.

That case is still under investigation, but Clark said it is very difficult to investigate and convict people of skimming because it is almost impossible to know where skimmers are and who placed them.

Skimmers are difficult to detect, as they often look just like the device onto which they are illegally placed.

There are also hand-held skimmers that are often used by restaurant servers. Clark said that when the server carries away the credit or debit card in order to scan it, they simply swipe the card through a hand-held skimmer and steal the information from it.

Skimmers are legal to purchase, and can easily bought online at a fairly cheap price.

Clark’s advice to avoid having credit or debit card information skimmed is simple: Ask the server if you can walk with him or her to the machine where the card will be swiped; do not let it leave your sight.

As for avoiding becoming a skimming victim at the gas pump, Clark said people can get a low-limit gas card and use only that card at the pump. That way, if the information is skimmed, the individual’s bank account will not be wiped out. He said there are also more legal protections with credit cards than with debit cards.

“If something looks off at a gas pump or ATM — if the cover is loose or looks like it has been tampered with — don’t use your card there,” Clark said.

Another alternative at gas stations, restaurants and retail outlets is to simply use cash.

“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ your identity will be stolen,” he said, “but when, and how severe.”