West Seattle Crime Prevention Council: How to avoid ID theft

From tonight’s West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting:

CRIME TRENDS: Southwest Precinct Operations Lt. Pierre Davis described it as an “up-and-down-type summer,” with burglary “spikes” at times. He said Community Police Team officers (including Ken Mazzuca and Kevin McDaniel, who were also at the meeting) were tasked with helping solve the puzzle, and that led to “very, very favorable arrests” of the “more prolific individuals out there in the West Seattle community” that put a “big dent” in burglaries, car prowls, and similar crimes – including suspects he says were to blame for more than half the burglaries.

He says there were no particular neighborhoods being hit harder than others – it would differ widely “as if a salt shaker were sprinkled all over (the map)” – and so crime analysis was done over and over again, yielding “fantastic arrests.”

As for specific types of crime, Lt. Davis said that car thefts are currently running “a few up from our norm,” which is 10/month, currently running at 13. Burglaries? “They’ve gone way down and we’re particularly happy about that.” Lt. Davis thanked alert community members and advice from Crime Prevention Coordinator Mark Solomon, “which has paid off greatly … we’ve gotten some fantastic tips” from people who provided helpful information that assisted them in arresting suspects. He says they’re also working to link suspects to more cases, if applicable, so they can be prosecuted under the Repeat Burglary Initiative and potentially get tougher sentences.

IDENTITY THEFT: Angela Kaake, senior deputy prosecuting attorney with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, was the meeting’s special guest, with a presentation featuring lots of data about its prevalence, as well as advice on prevention and protection, plus a window into what it takes for successful prosecution. (She’s also on the Greater Puget Sound Financial Fraud and Identity Theft Task Force.)

Want to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft? She had specific advice – for prevention and for what to do if it happens anyway – read on:

First – what constitutes identity theft?

*Forged checks – “a real check that’s been changed or altered,” as Kaake described it.
*Counterfeit checks – “someone gets a hold of your account information.”
*Using stolen credit cards
*Stealing personal information and opening credit accounts, bank accounts, utilities, renting an apartment, etc. “Those are a little bit more scary because you won’t necessarily know about those right away,” she noted.
*Stealing credit-card numbers or account info – online purchases, skimming, etc. (She pointed out today’s Seattle Times [WSB partner] report on a big skimming bust – read it here.)

Little-known facts: It’s the most-reported crime in the U.S., with 10 million “new victims” every year – yet, she said, 61 percent of those who reported to the Federal Trade Commission (which you’re supposed to do) said they had not made a report to their local police. Our state was 17th in the nation for identity-theft complaints, per capita, last year – but that ranking has fallen annually over the past several years.

Even WSCPC president Richard Miller said he had been a victim of identity theft. An attendee said that it happened to her many years ago, at which time she said she couldn’t even get police to take a report; the person who victimized her, she said, “spent a lot of time talking to a phone psychic,” among other uses of her funds!

Clearly, it can happen to anyone, Kaake said, pointing out that this region’s U.S. Attorney, Jenny Durkan, had acknowledged becoming an identity-theft victim too. So, how does it happen?

*Stolen mail
*Going through your garbage
*Car prowl
*Employees stealing sensitive information
*Computer hacking
*Phishing (defined here)
*Malware (defined here)
*ATM skimming (as mentioned previously)
*Skimming by workers who process payments you make, etc.

It tends to be more of an organized-crime problem, with a lot of Eastern European involvement, Kaake explained. So, what can you do to prevent it?

*Get a locking mailbox, “even a $15 cheapo one,” Kaake recommended, since your incoming mail can be of value to identity thieves as well as outgoing. (That led to a cautionary tale from an attendee who said mail had been stolen from a US Postal Service employee who had parked his truck at a local business.)

*Take outgoing mail to the post office (though Kaake warned, that’s not foolproof – even the main collection box at a Snohomish County post office was broken into recently)

*Shred sensitive documents, including credit-card applications and card/bank account statements – if you don’t or can’t have your own shredder, keep your radar up for shred-a-thons, and save that particular paperwork in a bag till you are able to take it to an event like that

*Don’t leave valuables in your car: “A lot of fraud and theft arises from vehicle prowls.”

*Protect your home, since burglaries can also yield loot that sparks identity theft

*Don’t give out information over the phone or Internet – “A lot of those phishing scams can look a lot like real websites, or real e-mail you might get from (your bank),” Kaake warned. And callers can sound legitimate; she talked about a friend who got a phone call asking about Social Security information, saying the friend was eligible for more benefits, and how she was alarmed to hear about it – it did turn out to be legitimate, but no harm would have been done from a precautionary call to doublecheck with the purported organization (Social Security Administration or whomever) before providing that information.

*Anti-virus software

*Account monitoring – keep a close watch on your banks and credit cards. “Know what you have in your accounts – check in on them weekly, if not every few days, to be sure the charges you have on there are the charges you are making.”

*Use a credit card whenever possible (as opposed to debit card) – more protection, no direct account access

Prevention was more complicated for one particular crime – Kaake delved more deeply into ATM skimming. To reduce your chances of being victimized:

*Check the ATM closely – look at it! “Pull on it, look and see if there are any scratch marks, scuffs, maybe glue around the edges” or “holes where cameras might be” – the cameras that would record you entering your PIN, so they can match it with what they might skim off your card. She says banks have worked to incorporate anti-fraud features into ATMs.

*”Location, location, location” – “Usually the safest place to get cash out would be at your (supermarket),” make a purchase and get the cash back, since those “point-of-sale terminals” are seldom left alone long enough for skimmers to be installed.

*Always cover your PIN – put a hand over the one you’re using to enter the PIN, or hold up your wallet, or whatever, to block a potential camera view.

*Consider the day and time of day – nights and weekends are when you’re most likely to get skimmed. The devices are generally left up for only a few hours, Kaake said, then the criminals come back for them and take them away.

*Door readers: “A new trend has been to install the card reader on that door reader” at banks where there is a secured room that requires you to swipe your card before you can get in to use the ATM.

So, let’s say an identity-theft suspect is caught. Prosecution isn’t easy, Kaake said. It is specifically outlawed by RCW 9.35.020. The hardest part is matching a particular thief to a particular case of identity theft. To boost the chances of prosecution, she said, these are vital actions:

*Report identity theft to police
*Police followup (which can be difficult because of challenges such as a lack of leads, difficulty of procuring records, no surveillance video installed or available – “without that, we’ve really got nothing” – and a lack of resources/budgets to pursue it)
*Prosecutors have to be able to prove identity “beyond a reasonable doubt”
*Prosecutors have to struggle with “budget constraints,” given layoffs and budget cuts in recent years

Even surveillance video is no sure thing, Kaake demonstrated with a video framegrab showing a suspect, photographed from above, and virtually unidentifiable – followed by a video framegrab showing a suspect, clearly recognizable, entering a place of business. Video, however, is the key to proving identity – “really one of the main ways we’re able to identify and prosecute,” since identity thieves are seldom caught in the act, unless they’re using a stolen check that is revealed as such while they’re trying to use it. Investigators must rely on retailers and banks cooperating with requests for video. Kaake noted that stolen cards are often used soon after they’re taken, and then discarded, but skimming might be delayed.

She said you can help investigators crack down on identity theft by providing information on where transactions happened – you might be able to get the information more easily from your bank than police and prosecutors would be able to, “and you can definitely do it without a search warrant,” which investigators would have to obtain and execute. Also, “keep track of your conversations and correspondence,” which also helps you when dealing with credit companies/banks regarding theft. Document everything – if a check has been forged, get it from the bank and print a copy for investigators. “We file cases we can prove,” she said later, during Q/A, though she didn’t have a conviction rate ready to share.

To protect yourself:

*Cancel cards immediately after breach/theft
*Get a fraud alert placed by the 3 major credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, Transunion) which should flag your account if someone tries to use it
*Report it to police and to the Federal Trade Commission
*Follow up with banks and credit cards “to make sure there are not additional charges”
*Take a look at credit-monitoring services that are offered, including private companies
*Consider insurance for identity theft
*Monitor your own credit (she mentioned annualcreditreport.com)

WSCPC president Miller added one more bit of advice – caller ID can be faked, so don’t trust that who’s calling is who your caller ID says it is, especially if they are asking for the type of identity/money-linked information that identity thieves are after.

The West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meets on the third Tuesday of the month, 7 pm, Southwest Precinct (Delridge/Webster) – so the next meeting is October 18th, and a Metro Transit Police rep is confirmed as the guest, to talk about crime/safety at bus stops and on buses. You can find agenda and contact information at wscpc.org.

2 Replies to "West Seattle Crime Prevention Council: How to avoid ID theft"

  • Jim P September 21, 2011 (11:41 am)

    The simplest step is to shred: Shred anything with account info or personal information on it. Check store receipts and make sure they do not show your entire credit card number. Shred them anyway.

    Stay off of Facebook and other places that require you to give up major amounts of personal information or simply make up data. It isn’t lying, it’s none of their business when you were born, where you were born and so on and on when you cannot control to who or where that information goes.

    Always look at requests for personal information through the lens of “How will this be misused?”

    Paranoia, it’s not just for breakfast any more.

  • Jenny at Mail Boss September 22, 2011 (1:41 pm)

    Shredding is what we’ve been told for years. The only thing is most of what you shred actually comes in your mailbox, and the majority of US residents do not have a locking mailbox. Mail theft is very common and most people don’t realize when their mail has been stolen, since you don’t know what’s going to come in the mail from day to day. Plus, savvy ID thieves will take sensitive documents and leave the junk mail, so people don’t realize anything went missing.

    All of the advice here is really thorough and really great. We take exception, though, with the statement that even a cheap $15 locking mailbox will do. For one thing, there are TONS of stories of thieves breaking into locking mailboxes, especially in areas like Seattle where lots of people have locking mailboxes. The other question is if any ol’ locking mailbox gives you a false sense of security – will you leave your mail longer than you would otherwise? The “cheapo” models can be broken into BY HAND in just seconds.

    Of course if a thief wants your mail he’ll find a way to steal it, but the question is.. how much effort will it take? If you’re going to lock your mailbox, get a good one! Otherwise may be wiser to invest in a PO BOX.

    Thanks again WSB for this great article! We have shared on our Facebook wall.

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