Danville Express

Newsfront - July 20, 2007

ID thieves target Alamo folks

Local victims have good credit, high bank balances and charging limits

by Natalie O'Neill

What do Dumpster-divers, overseas Internet hackers and purse snatchers have in common?

They're all tied into the buying and selling of personal information - names, Social Security numbers, birth dates - used to steal victims' identities.

Identity theft, often for the purpose of opening or gaining access to financial accounts, is the fastest growing crime in the country. Seven million cases occur annually in the U.S., but Alamo Sheriff's Valley Station is at the forefront of prevention.

"This is the hottest new crime wave," said Alamo Deputy Elmer Glasser.

Glasser attended a certified training course recently through the Vacaville Police Department to learn the most up-to-date preventative methods for identity theft available to police in Northern California.

"I don't think the average citizen realizes how important it is to stay on top of their own personal identification information," he explained.

For example, suspects of identity theft are known to go through trash to find old mail, like letters for pre-approved credit cards. They then tape ripped up credit card approvals back together, fill out the form, check the "change address" box - and have the credit card sent to them in the victim's name.

Many credit organizations still accept the taped together letters, Glasser said. Cutting or ripping up old mail is not enough - they need to be shredded.

"If you don't own a (paper) shredder, you are making yourself a victim to identity theft," he said.

Thieves have also begun to purchase "skimmers," devises used to transfer the magnetic strip information found on the back of credit cards from one card to another. They purchase sets of blank swipe-able cards and can then assign legit credit card information to their own illegitimate ones, Glasser said.

Purse and wallet thieves, along with anyone who has access to the credit card for more than a few minutes - restaurants or retail stores - can transfer a strip code to their own blank card. Within 15 minutes, they are able to fabricate a new card.

"It's a goldmine," Glasser said.

To protect yourself from being a victim of this scheme, monitor credit card transactions very carefully and never leave your purse or wallet in your car, even if it's locked, he said.

In Alamo and Danville, residents are at risk because they generally have good credit, with high account balances and charging limits. They also typically have relaxed attitudes and are unsuspecting of crimes, Glasser said.

"People target Alamo and Danville more than lower income areas of California. It's easier to become comfortable," he explained.

In many of these cases, residents often don't know what has happened to their credit until they go to buy a house, Glasser said. He strongly advises that people check their credit records with the credit bureau at least two times a year.

Financial account information is also accessed by searching through incoming or outgoing mail and by hacking into pages online where card numbers have been entered.

To avoid losing thousands of dollars, use a credit card with a small limit for online purchases and never drop mail with checks or bank info in front of your house. Walk it into the post office or leave it in a blue drop box, Glasser said.

Alamo resident Mary Nelson had over $1,000 of charges put on her card this winter as part of an identity theft scheme. Now, she says she's more cautious about how she pays for things.

"I don't let my card out of my sight now," she said, adding that she is also more careful with outgoing mail.

"I take it right to the post office. We used to take our mail out at night and put up the flag," she said.

Along with being careful with online purchases, be wary of phone calls where organizations or "bank representatives" ask you to verify pin numbers or Social Security information over the phone.

"(Banks) already have that info. If they ask you to give personal information, hang up and call the bank directly," Glasser said.

One more thing to look out for are "pop up" Web pages, many of which are designed to look like they are from legitimate banks, asking for Social Security or pin numbers.

"Why rob a bank, when (criminals) can stay on the Internet for a little time and get thousands of dollars?" he said.

If you have been a victim of identity theft, a police report should be filed and all accounts should be closed and reopened. Once you have been a victim, you are more likely to become a victim again. This makes prevention crucial, said Glasser.

To report identity theft cases, contact the Alamo Sheriff's Valley Station at 837-2902.


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