SIKESTON - Identity theft. Everyone's read about it. Everyone's heard about it, but is it something consumers of Southeast Missouri should be concerned about? Sources say: "You bet!"
"I know of an attorney who had his wallet stolen, and he quickly learned the steps to recover his account," said Robin Pace, assistant vice president of Firstar Bank of Sikeston.
"Within two weeks his account was recovered, but also in that amount of time, the criminals used his Social Security number to apply for a credit card and another line of credit, and they were going to buy a new computer with his identity."
According to the "Identity Theft Prevention and Survival" Web site, identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America, affecting approximately 900,000 new victims each year. Many states, including Missouri, have passed specific identity theft laws, while some states classify the offense under other state laws.
The Web site described identity theft, or identity fraud, as taking a victim's identity to obtain credit, credit cards from banks and retailers, apply for loans, rent an apartment or steal money from the victim's existing accounts.
Although not many identity thefts have been reported in the Southeast Missouri area, Lt. Mark Crocker of the Sikeston Department of Public Safety said about five or six identity thefts occurred last year in the Sikeston area alone. Crocker said it has increased over the past two years.
Identity thieves use Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, victims' names, dates of birth and any other piece of personal information to obtain identities.
Obtaining this information isn't hard. Aside from the Internet, schools, doctors', attorneys' and insurance offices all contain the personal information needed to take over someone's identity.
"I think there's more of an increase in identity theft because of computers and the Internet," Crocker said. "More information is available for criminals to access."
Pace agreed the Internet provides a great opportunity for people to steal another person's identity, but there are measures consumers should take to ensure the worst won't happen.
"Make a photocopy of everything in your wallet because a lot of credit cards have the company's toll-free numbers on them," Pace said. "Then, if your wallet or purse does get stolen, the numbers are readily there for you to use."
Pace also said people are increasingly discontinuing putting their Social Security numbers on their checks. No one should ever give their Social Security number or account number over the phone either, she said.
Firstar has not experienced any identity thefts yet, but they have had numerous clients who have had their purses or wallets stolen from their vehicles, Pace said. So she recommends to never leave a purse or wallet in a vehicle.
"I have to watch myself," Pace said. "If I'm in the grocery store or somewhere, I'll turn around, and there's my purse just sitting in my cart all alone. We must keep our eyes out."
Pace said if someone does get their checks or credit cards stolen, they should immediately call and cancel their credit cards. Then, they should notify the police and file a report in the jurisdiction where their cards were stolen, and finally, they should notify the three national credit reporting agencies, she said.
The agencies are Equifax at 1-800-525-6285; Experian, or The Credit Bureau Inc., at 1-800-311-4769; and Transunion Corporation at 1-800-680-7289. Pace also said to notify the Social Security Office at 1-800-269-0271.