Consumer Fraud and Identity theft – offline information security

Consumer Fraud and Identity Theft- You’re actually less likely to be struck by lightning!

According to the Federal Trade Commission database, there were over 635,000 consumer fraud and identity theft complaints in the U.S. in 2004. That includes stolen credit card numbers as well as full-blown identity theft, but that’s still a lot of people.

In comparison, 12,994 people were killed or injured in lightning strikes in the U.S. from 1959 to 1994 (NASA/National Weather Service). That’s right. You’re far more likely to be the victim of some form of consumer fraud or identity theft than you are to be struck by lightning. The surprising news is how much consumer fraud occurs entirely offline.

Stolen purses, wallets, and mail were involved in approximately 25% of cases. In 52% of identity theft cases involving opening new accounts (credit cards, major purchases, mortgages, etc.), the victim knew the thief’s identity (usually a family member or relative). Even in comparatively minor cases of credit card misuse / theft, 18% of victims actually knew the thief.

What’s that mean to the standard PC user? The report didn’t include any stats on online information theft, but it was pretty clear from the other statistics that the information-stealing stage of many cases of identity theft (if not the majority) occurred offline. I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep your firewalls up or continue to watch out for phishing scams. We’ll talk more about about online holiday shopping security tomorrow. Just keep an eye out for the offline thieves, too.

For offline information security, being aware of your surroundings and being slightly skeptical covers most of the easy ground. Carry wallets and purses where they’re harder for pickpockets to grab them (front inner coat pockets or pockets in layers worn under coats). Backpack-style purses for shopping expeditions are a double no-no. You can’t see them, and you probably wouldn’t feel someone pilfering them through your coat.

Don’t carry so many bags that you’re bumping into things with them; a pickpocket would feel like just another bump, and maneuvering the bundles around people and displays is already taking up much of your attention. Make a trek back to the car and drop them off in the trunk, where they won’t visibly tempt car thieves.

Sign your credit card and write ASK FOR PHOTO ID on it in permanent market, not erasable pen. Carry your photo ID to show the cashiers. Yes, it takes a little forethought to have that ready when you get to the front of the lines, but clearing up credit card theft takes hours. You make the choice. Some people have this strange belief that leaving their cards unsigned or only requesting a photo ID check somehow makes their credit card more secure. From many winters of retail work in my student days, I can tell you that thieves will happily sign your credit card in their handwriting! Stores aren’t legally required to check your card signature or ID for purchases under $25 (at least, not in Ohio), but many small purchases can add up to a lot of money.

On the phone, give wisely. The friendly voice on the other end of the line might be the Red Cross or Salvation Army, but how can you be sure? Don’t give your credit card out over the phone. Donate through the organization’s official website to be sure that your charitable gift will really go to the needy, not the greedy.

If it sounds too good to be true or if the store staff looks a little shady, use caution. While carrying cash has its own risks, paying by cash keeps them from seeing your credit card number. I would also exercise caution when asked to sign up for a store card. If you never saw that store in town before, do you need a store card? Is the dollar amount you’ll save on that purchase worth giving them your name, address, and social security number? Obviously, it’s a judgment call. There are large chain stores and long-standing local stores whose cards and savings programs I would trust. Just evaluate the situation before you hand out your info.

Finally, don’t leave purses or wallets with credit cards unattended. This sounds very straightforward. Nobody thinks they would ever do something this silly. Now remember the last wedding reception you attended. When everyone got up to dance and mingle, did you keep your purse or dinner jacket (and wallet and keys) with you the whole night or did you leave them at the table? The same scenario occurs at office Christmas parties.

Likewise, don’t leave those important items with your shoes at in-house holiday events. Put bills, purses, and important papers away in a secure place when you host holiday gatherings. My grandfather’s roll top desk kept all the family papers locked away when he wasn’t paying bills, so this isn’t really a new concept.

We all want to trust our families and friends, but remember that 114,300 credit card theft cases last year were committed by someone the victim knew. Just take simple precautions beforehand, and enjoy your holiday season.

The .pdf file of the full government survey report on identity theft is at:

~ Chris Fisher

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