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Constable's Notebook - March 2011

When Sherri Tibbe checked her credit card statement last March she discovered some unfamiliar purchases including videos, wrinkle treatment and gas. Sherri was a victim of identity theft and ironically she is also the Hays County district attorney. Sherri is far from alone in having her identity stolen.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, an identity is stolen every three seconds. In 2009 more than 11.7 million Americans had their identities stolen, resulting in more than $54 Billion in fraud. Twenty-eight percent of all identity thefts involve the fraudulent use of another person’s credit card number followed by utility theft (18%), bank (17%) and employment (12%). Identity thefts have also spread to cell and landline phone service, Internet payment services, home mortgages, auto, boat and other forms of financing. Identity theft is the top complaint received by the Federal Trade Commission which cost victims an average of $2,000. Nearly three quarters of identity theft victims reported having difficulties getting false information removed from credit reports, about half said they had trouble obtaining credit, and 11% found obtaining employment to be more difficult.

The one factor that all types of identity theft have in common is access to our personal information. Identity thieves pick our pockets and purses, go through mailboxes and garbage, search public records, hack into computers, search for weak passwords, run phony ads, browse social networks and even cruise streets looking for unsecure Wi-Fi sites. The big credit card companies employ computer programs that can catch potential fraud almost as soon as it occurs but it is not foolproof. While we can’t control all thefts of our personal information, preventing the most common methods used are about as simple as locking our doors at night and not leaving our keys in the car. Secure your mailbox (with lock or slot in door), shred discarded personal information, limit the number of credit cards you use, maintain adequate computer security and never provide personal information over the phone or online unless it is absolutely required and the internet site is known and trusted. Most of us who know how to protect our personal information do but even so, identity theft increased 12% last year.

Identity theft should be reported immediately to the Austin Police Department’s Financial Crimes Unit at 974-3000 or the Travis County Sheriff’s Office at 854-9770. Their websites www.ci.austin.tx.us/police/fcu.htm or www.tcsheriff.org contain extensive information about preventing identity theft and what to do if you become a victim.

“Constantly check your account. If you see fraudulent activity, cancel the account immediately and notify law enforcement,” said Hays County DA Sherri Tibbe. Her advice intended for others ended up serving her very well.



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