BENTON - Our low-crime community has not experienced many cases of identity theft, according to Captain Brenda Schiwitz of the Scott County Sheriff's Department.
"We don't really have a lot of active cases that we're working on in Scott County. We're not in a high crime area but we have had two, both stolen credit card numbers," she said.
Schiwitz speculated that local citizens' careful attitudes help deter identity theft. "People here are cautious. And that's a good thing," she said.
Although it does not appear to be a crucial issue, the department aims to inform community members about identity theft and stop the problem before it starts. "We have had several proactive trainings," Schiwitz reported.
The Federal Trade Commission describes identity theft as "stealing someone's personal information and using it to commit fraud or theft."
Thieves target any details including personal information about a potential victim of identity left, including: name, address, date of birth, social security number, telephone/calling card number, bank account information and credit card numbers.
Personal information used in accounts, such as passwords or a mother's maiden name, is also desired.
According to the FTC, the stolen information can be used to drain bank accounts or set up accounts in someone else's name by opening new credit card accounts, buying cars, establishing phone or wireless service, and filing for bankruptcy.
The FTC suggests several ways identity thieves obtain personal information. "They may: practice dumpster diving, steal wallets or purses, steal mail, pose as a rental agent or employer, go online, or pay an 'insider'," as stated in their booklet.
Information can easily be transferred electronically, such as over the Internet or phone. Schiwitz said: "So many transactions are done electronically now, because it is less time consuming. Everyone is on the fast track. We all just want to save time."
To avoid having information stolen online, Schiwitz recommended "not to use a credit card online, even though it is such a convenience." If you do, make sure that you have a secure connection.
Among other precautions, the FTC advises: "lighten your wallet. Carry only the credit cards and personal information you need." Schiwitz agreed, adding "it's good common sense."
She also warned: "Do not give out information over the phone - ask them to send the form through the mail."
Before sharing personal information, the FTC recommends asking questions. These include: "How will it be used? Will it be shared? Can I choose to keep it confidential?"
Schiwitz suggested paying more attention to giving out personal information.
Some people recommend using a driver's license number that differs from your Social Security number. Schiwitz said this is "a matter of personal preference."
Schiwitz described using a Social Security number as an identifier for simplicity. "Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not. It's all up to the individual," she said.
Even if a driver's license number and Social Security number are not identical, Schiwitz pointed out that law enforcement can still access one's Social Security number.
"I suggest that people look at their bank and credit card statements, keep their receipts and compare them," Schiwitz said.
If you do not recognize a purchase, Schiwitz urged: "Call your credit card company before you worry. You may have forgotten a purchase." There is an 800-number on the bill to call with questions.
"Sometimes, it's the mistake of the credit card company and can be resolved with a phone call," Schiwitz said. This happened to her once, when her account was accidentally billed instead of another account, only one number in difference.
If theft has occurred, then contact the local police department. "The police department becomes involved when there is a fraud, and suspects are charged with stealing," Schiwitz said.
No matter what the amount of charges incurred on the credit card, the victim will not have to pay for them all. "You are only liable for the first $50," Schiwitz said. The rest of the fraudulent spending is absorbed by merchants.
For more information about identity theft, contact the local sheriff's department or visit the Federal Trade Commission web site at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.