Identity thefts one of fastest growing crimes, especially in this state

PROSSER - With fraud and identity thefts as one of the fastest growing crimes in the country, the staff of U.S. Bank offered a fraud prevention class at the Inn at Horse Heaven in Prosser Wednesday night.

Sunnyside Police Officer Sam Ramos and Reserve Police Officer Janita Wutzke spoke to citizens about being victim to fraud and identity theft.

Ramos, who previously worked in the local police department's detective division, said he has handled numerous cases of people stealing mail from mailboxes. Not only is incoming mail being stolen, but outgoing mail is often taken.

"Anything you mail out should go to the post office," said Ramos, explaining that criminals will gain information about accounts from checks in outgoing mail.

Information that is often placed in credit card offers is also used to steal the identities of people.

"A lot of them have your information in it," said Ramos.

In one case Ramos handled, Sunnyside police found stolen mail in the back of a vehicle. A search warrant served at the suspect's house led to more stolen mail.

Ramos added that just because something is shredded, it doesn't mean that a person is safe from identity theft. He has seen people put shredded paper from a bank back together to gain personal information. Wutzke said the only safe shredder is a cross-cut shredder.

"Nobody's going to put that back together," she added.

The Federal Trade Commission has Washington state listed as having the fourth highest reported fraud in the country. The state is number eight in reported identification thefts.

"It could be good or bad," said Wutzke. "There could be more reports being made than in other places or we could just have more theft."

The Consumer Sentinel reports there were 9,378 fraud complaints in Washington state in 2004. An additional 5,645 identity theft complaints were reported in Washington state that year.

In Washington the top fraud complaint is from Internet auctions. The complaints make up about 25 percent of those filed in the state. The second highest number of complaints are from shop-at-home and catalog sales. Also a concern is Internet services and computer complaints, followed by foreign money offers and prizes or sweepstakes and lottery offers.

Credit card fraud makes up 28 percent of the identity theft complaints reported in Washington. Bank fraud is 24 percent of the calls, followed by phone or utilities fraud. There is also a number of employment-related fraud cases, government document or benefit fraud, load fraud and attempted identity theft.

Wutzke said that nationwide, only about 61 percent of fraud or identity theft victims report it to police. They are most likely to only report it to their bank or financial institution, she added.

Those hardest hit by bank fraud are between the ages of 18 and 40, according to research by the trade commission.

Wutzke said there are a few protective steps that can be taken to keep from being a victim of identity theft. She said one way is to make sure that when paying with a check card or credit card at a restaurant that it is your card you get back. She said dishonest employees can switch cards with an expired card belonging to someone else.

"If you don't catch it you're gone and they have your card," she said.

"Don't be embarrassed to ask someone who is crowding you to step back out of the way while you finish your transaction," said Wutzke. She said it is especially important when it occurs at a cash machine.

Besides gaining information from stolen mail and documents, Ramos said information can be taken from purses and wallets stolen from cars.

He said that if a purse or wallet is taken it's important to call the Social Security Department and have them place a flag on your social security number so that it cannot be used to open fraudulent accounts.

A Sunnyside woman attempting to obtain a home loan had problems because her stolen social security number had been used to obtain numerous cars loans, all of which had been defaulted on.

Julie Mork, U.S. Bank Vice President and Regional Sales Manager, said there are several ways people can help protect themselves against fraud.

"You can go on the Internet and pull three credit reports," she said. "It's probably a good idea to do that every quarter or at least every six months."

She also suggested that purse and wallet carriers take photographs of the front and back of everything carried in them.

"It will take longer for you to look up the information than it will take for someone to spend your money," said Mork.

Last year, Mork said a billion dollars in check fraud was committed against U.S. Bank alone.

The Uniform Commercial Code, which hasn't been changed in several years, doesn't require that the bank be responsible for the loss, which puts it on the shoulders of business owners.

"You are more likely to have more check fraud once it has happened once," said Mork.

She suggested that accounts be reconciled within the first two days the statement comes in the mail. If you don't want to wait that long, U.S. Bank also offers statements via fax or e-mail. Accounts can also be checked on-line.

Mork added that being familiar with programs banks offer to help prevent fraud and taking a pro-active approach to preventing fraud and identity theft is key to protecting small businesses and personal customers.


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