Personal protection: ID theft can happen to anyone

A U.S. Postal Service poster warning people of identity theft hangs in the lobby of the post office on Gidding Street. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marc Schoder: CNJ correspondent

Years ago, Scott Davis went to a car dealership expecting to get approved for a loan to buy a new set of wheels. Instead, dealership employees handed him a failing grade on his credit report.

“They came back and told me that I had horrible collection accounts showing up from different area jeweler stores totaling anywhere from $1,700 and $2,000,” said Davis, who manages Valley Furniture in Portales. “It took me two years to get the accounts removed from my credit and at the time I had no idea how it happened.”

Davis now knows, and he takes appropriate measures to make sure it won’t happen again.

His story is an example of identity theft, a process of misleading somebody into giving personal information and using that information. Officials say identity theft is on the rise and shoppers — especially those who purchase items online — should be wary this holiday season.

Davis now periodically shreds credit card statements and junk mail as one of many precautions.

“When this happened I contacted all three credit bureaus and placed a fraud alert on my credit file,” Davis said. “(Now) when someone tries to pull my credit report they have written permission from me first before doing so.”

When Davis is at work he requires a person’s presence in the store to run a credit application before they can make a purchase.

Identity theft is just as common online, officials say, and with the holiday season, many will shop online for hard-to-find items or shipping discounts.

Doug Stone, chief executive officer of Clovis National Bank, said his bank has invested money toward high-tech solutions for identity theft, like firewalls.
“You want to protect your customers,” he said. “It’s money well-spent.”

Because many transactions in today’s economy are computer-based, the opportunity for identity thieves and hackers is greater than ever, Stone said. He said simple things can be done to prevent identity theft, like making sure you don’t leave behind a credit card receipt at a restaurant.

“This is a growing concern,” he said. “Once it happens you go through a big long rigmarole of trying to get it cleaned up.”

A number of groups such as the American Bar Association have stepped up consumer education efforts — the ABA maintains the site www.safeshopping.org with computer security tips — because online shopping has increased so dramatically.

Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based Internet research company, estimates that online holiday retail sales, including travel, will increase 20 percent to $13.2 billion this year following a 31 percent rise in 2003.
With that increase comes more temptation for would-be thieves, so online merchants want their customers to be careful.

“When shopping on the Internet you have to use common sense to remain Internet safe,” says Suzi Webb, proprietor of Webbdirect2u.com, a Portales-based Web site specializing in children’s apparel.

Webb added when she does her credit card transactions from the Internet she uses payment service sites like Paypal.com and Authorize.net.

“We have used both of these online payment services and had no issues with them with regards to identity theft,” Webb said. “Anything processed in store is destroyed and no records like that are maintained.”

Webb said it’s good business to do things to protect yourself on the Internet like change your password to something that can’t be found in the dictionary.

Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matthew Chandler said his district has had 10 cases of identity theft go through the office in the last year. Seven of those cases have resulted in convictions, he said. Usually, Chandler said, those who commit identity theft leave a paper trail.

Steve Salter, director of the Better Business Bureau’s BBBOnline reliability program, said if consumers have concerns about online merchants, they can contact their local Better Business Bureau for guidance.

To make it easier for consumers to identify online merchants they can trust, the organization issues BBBOnline reliability seals to companies that agree to abide by a code of ethical business practices, pledge accuracy in advertising and display full disclosures about their location, warranties and guarantees, and shipping and return policies.

Regardless of whether credit is used online, by mail or in a store, identity theft is preventable by the same methods.
“Avoid giving information to anyone,” Davis said, “unless you know what they are going to use it for.”

CNJ Staff Writer David Irvin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.