Identity Theft: A Challenge for Law Enforcement
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that roughly 8.4 million Americans were a victim of identity theft in 2006. Identity thieves steal personal information from their victims, such as their Social Security number, date of birth, or credit card number, and use it without their knowledge to commit fraud or other crimes. Once the thief has the victim’s identifying information, he or she will attempt to misuse the victim’s existing bank or credit card account, or open a new account in the victim’s name. All too frequently citizens don’t know that their identity has been stolen until they fail to secure a loan, are refused credit, receive bills or calls from unknown creditors, or notice questionable charges on their account. Unfortunately, it can take months, sometimes years, for a victim to undo the damage that the thief has done
To assist victims and increase awareness about identity theft, both state and local law enforcement can play an active role in combating this crime. They can hold public information sessions encouraging citizens to file a police report and report the incident to the FTC if they believe they are victim, as well as put a fraud alert on their credit report. Law enforcement can also educate citizens about the importance of protecting their personal information by not carrying their Social Security card with them and giving out personal information only if they know who they are dealing with. It is especially important that they stress to citizens the importance of frequently reviewing their bank and credit card statements because this is the most common way an individual will find out that he or she has become a victim.
The Internet is also a place where thieves find their victims. They will attempt to gain someone’s personal information by sending e-mails with links to false web sites of banks or credit card companies or attach programs that record the keystrokes of unsuspecting victims who are logging into their personal accounts. Law enforcement should encourage people to be aware of these scams and use only the web sites they know and trust.
In addition to public outreach, law enforcement personnel can also work with local businesses and service organizations in their community. For instance, they can encourage businesses to require employees to check a customer’s photo identification before conducting a credit card purchase. For businesses that provide online services, they should stress the importance of regularly checking their web site to ensure that it has the proper security measures so thieves cannot gain access to personal information they may have obtained from clients. For service organizations, such as health services or a department of motor vehicles, law enforcement can assist in performing background checks on individuals who have access to the personal information of employees or the public records. This will ensure that these individuals are absolutely trustworthy and do not have criminal records. Identity thieves often attempt to bribe these individuals with large sums of money. For added security, it is equally important for businesses to limit the number of people who can access clients’ personal information.
Law enforcement agencies can also partner with other components of the criminal justice system. For instance, when holding public information sessions, law enforcement may wish to enlist the help of an attorney who is familiar with identity theft laws. As a legal expert, an attorney can inform citizens about the kind of evidence a victim must provide to prove that the identity theft occurred, how a case is selected for trial, and possible outcomes. In addition, if the attorney is willing, he or she could offer free legal advice to individuals who believe they are a victim of identity theft.
By working together, the public, community organizations, local businesses, banks, and law enforcement can develop ways to deter identity thieves. These kinds of partnerships between police and the community are integral to a cohesive community policing plan that recognizes that police are not alone in addressing public safety concerns.
The COPS Office has prepared a top-ten list of ways citizens can protect themselves from identity theft during the holiday season. We invite you to customize and distribute this list as part of your holiday crime-prevention campaign. Also, please visit the COPS web site at www.cops.usdoj.gov for our Identity Theft and Check and Card Fraud Problem-Oriented Policing Guides.
Identity Theft Prevention Tips for 2008
Before you begin shopping this holiday season, keep these tips in mind.
- Photocopy both sides of your credit and debit cards and store in a secure place. This way you have will the account numbers, expiration dates, and telephone numbers of customer service to report a lost card or if you think your account is being used fraudulently.
- Keep receipts in your wallet as opposed to the shopping bag. Should a receipt be lost or stolen, thieves would have your name and a portion of your account number to gain access to your account. Be sure to take the receipts out of your wallet when you get home.
- Only carry the credit cards you know you will use in your wallet. Take unnecessary personal identifying information out of your wallet. This includes your checkbook, Social Security card, pieces of paper with PIN numbers.
- Do not use debit cards when shopping online. Federal law limits your loss on a debit card to $50, but only if you report it within 2-days after discovering the theft. After 2-days, you could be responsible for all the unauthorized charges.
- When shopping online, only use a credit card. In the event that your card is used without your authorization, you are only responsible for the first $50 in charges.
- If possible, only shop on-line from U.S. companies. You have better protection under state and federal laws. International law may not protect you should you become a victim.
- When shopping on-line only purchase from companies that display https:// in their web address. The “s” indicates that the site is secure. You may also see a padlock, which also indicates the site is secure.
- If you shop online, ensure that your computer has the most up-to-date security software. This will reduce the chance of your computer being hacked from outsiders trying to gain access to your personal information.
- Review your bank and credit card statements carefully for any unauthorized purchases.
- If you think you have been a victim:
- Close those accounts that you think are in jeopardy.
- Place a “Fraud Alert” on your credit report by calling one of the following consumer reporting companies:
- Equifax: 800.525.6285
- Experian: 888.397.3742
- TransUnion: 800.680.7289
- File a police report by contacting [insert your agency information here]
- Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) either online www.ftc.gov/idtheft or by calling 877.438.4261.