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ID theft risks up in shopping season
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Avoid identity theft

  • Protect your cards. Carry as few cards with you as possible. To avoid pickpockets in busy malls, keep wallets in your front pocket. Don’t carry a purse if you don’t need to.
  • Never carry your social security card in your purse or wallet. Keep it at home. Social Security cards are seldom needed in daily life.
  • Write checks with a felt-tipped pen, which makes stolen checks impossible to bleach and forge.
  • Carefully monitor bank statements, credit card statements and other financial transaction records for discrepancies.
  • Check your credit report more than once a year. The three major credit bureaus each offer one free credit report a year. Take advantage of it.
  • If the merchant’s copy of a restaurant tab includes your credit card number, mark it out with a pen.
  • Be aware of your surroundings when using credit and debit cards. Use two hands when typing in your personal identification number, one to shield the number from the prying eyes of others.

Source: Hall County Sheriff’s Office, Georgia Bureau of Investigation

Today’s traditional start of the holiday shopping season also marks the beginning of the holiday stealing season.

And identity theft remains the fastest-growing form of larceny in the U.S., experts say, with many victims in Hall County and an increased risk during the holidays.

The Gainesville Metropolitan Statistical Area ranked 12th in the nation for identity thefts reported to the Federal Trade Commission per 100,000 residents, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s annual Consumer Sentinel Network report for January to December 2008.

The Gainesville area, with 641 complaints of fraud per 100,000 residents last year, had the highest per capita reporting rate of fraud in Georgia and ranked fourth in the Southeast. Other Southeastern towns in the national listing were Dunn, N.C., in fourth place overall, Punta Gorda, Fla., in fifth and Thomasville-Lexington, N.C., in 11th. Gainesville-Hall County, with a total population of about 184,000, had 1,112 fraud cases reported to the FTC in 2008.

Dalton, at 39th nationally, and Macon, at 49th, were the only two other metropolitan statistical areas in the state to make the FTC’s top 50.

Terry Sosebee, the special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s identity theft unit, said Gainesville’s high ranking could owe to better reporting to the FTC, which is not required but strongly recommended.

“It may mean people in the Gainesville area are more apt to report fraud to the FTC,” Sosebee said. “They may be more encouraged by law enforcement or the local banking industry to make reports than in other parts of the country.”

Scott Mitic, president of identity theft protection services company TrustedID, said some correlations have been drawn between areas of heavy methamphetamine use, large populations of undocumented workers, and high rates of identity theft.

The Gainesville area has a large Hispanic population, many of whom are undocumented, and methamphetamine continues to be a problem drug in some rural counties surrounding Hall.

Mitic said other than those factors, for many victims of identity theft that are targeted from the other side of the globe via the Internet, “it may be just a matter of being unlucky.”

Mitic said the majority of identity theft still happens “the old-fashioned way” — someone directly connected to a victim or one person removed from them steals a credit card or Social Security number or finds a discarded credit card solicitation in the trash. It could be a nanny, a neighbor or an unscrupulous retail employee.

Mitic’s company provides anti-spyware protection for personal computers and monitors its customers’ credit for red flags.

“There is undeniably a greater risk during the holiday season, because we’re sharing more information,” he said.

Mitic said the risks of identity theft, particularly for online and so-called “brick and mortar” retail purchases, remains “very limited.”

“There’s a low risk that something bad could happen,” Mitic said. “But having said that, every year there are 10 million Americans who are unlucky.”

In Hall County, investigators typically see fraud cases pick up as more people are out shopping, Hall County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Kiley Sargent said.

“We stay pretty busy with white collar crimes year-round, but even moreso during the holiday season,” Sargent said. “They do go up this time of year.”

Sosebee, the GBI’s identity theft task force supervisor, said fraud schemes are “across the board.”

Lately the agency has encountered cases in which fraudsters hijacked legitimate ads for homes and cars on Web sites like Craigslist and used them to obtain personal information.

In all cases, the best defense for identity theft is to maintain close control of your credit cards and checkbooks and frequently monitor your transaction statements, Sosebee said. People should check their credit report more than once a year, he said.

“It’s very important, especially during the holidays, to monitor your credit report,” Sosebee said.

Mitic said while major retailers have worked hard to keep up with hackers attempting to steal their databases of credit card information, the risks will always remain.

“The security used today by major e-commerce sites and major data repositories has never been better, never been stronger and harder to break into,” Mitic said. “But it doesn’t matter. There is always a hole, and that is the game for the bad guys, to find the hole.”