Consumer Sentinel Network Complaint Figures

Sign Scam Represents Rip Off And Scams

The Consumer Sentinel Network released its 2015 Data Book detailing more than 3 million consumer complaints in 2015. Better Business Bureau is one of more than a dozen leading data contributors to the data book.

In 2015 debt collection topped the list as the number one complaint category. Overall, complaints broke down as 40 percent fraud, 16 percent identity theft and 44 percent other types.

The following is a breakdown of complaints for states serviced by BBB Northwest. These figures are based on consumer complaints made from Jan. 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2015.

ALASKA

There were a total of 3,613 identity theft, fraud and other consumer complaints. Of that there were 2,917 fraud and other complaints.

The top 10 fraud and other complaints by Alaska consumers were:

  1. Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries (Complaints: 707; Percentage: 24%)
  2. Imposter Scams (Complaints: 627; Percentage: 21%)
  3. Debt Collection (Complaints: 184; Percentage: 6%)
  4. Shop-At-Home and Catalog Sales (Complaints: 144; Percentage: 5%)
  5. Telephone and Mobile Services (Complaints: 140; Percentage: 5%)
  6. Banks and Lenders (Complaints: 126; Percentage: 4%)
  7. Auto-Related Complaints (Complaints: 120; Percentage: 4%)
  8. Internet Services (Complaints: 85; Percentage: 3%)
  9. Foreign Money Offers & Counterfeit Check Scams (Complaints: 76; Percentage: 3%)
  10. Health Care (Complaints: 65; Percentage: 2%)

There were a total of 696 identity theft complaints from Alaska victims.

The following are the types of identity thefts reported:

  1. Government Documents or Benefits Fraud (Complaints: 707; Percentage: 58%)
  2. Credit Card Fraud (Complaints: 627; Percentage: 12%)
  3. Phone or Utilities Fraud (Complaints: 43; Percentage: 6%)
  4. Bank Fraud (Complaints: 33; Percentage: 5%)
  5. Loan Fraud (Complaints: 15; Percentage: 2%)
  6. Employment-Related Fraud (Complaints: 11; Percentage: 2%)
  7. Other (Complaints: 135; Percentage: 19%)
  8. Attempted Identity Theft (Complaints: 30; Percentage: 4%)

IDAHO

There were a total of 8,678 identity theft, fraud and other consumer complaints. Of that there were 7,002 fraud and other complaints.

The top 10 fraud and other complaints by Idaho consumers were:

  1. Imposter Scams (Complaints: 1,519; Percentage: 22%)
  2. Debt Collection (Complaints: 937; Percentage: 13%)
  3. Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries (Complaints: 653; Percentage: 9%)
  4. Telephone and Mobile Services (Complaints: 554; Percentage: 8%)
  5. Banks and Lenders (Complaints: 445; Percentage: 6%)
  6. Shop-at-Home and Catalog Sales (Complaints: 364; Percentage: 5%)
  7. Auto-Related Complaints (Complaints: 322; Percentage: 5%)
  8. Internet Services (Complaints: 201; Percentage: 3%)
  9. Credit Bureaus, Information Furnishers and Report Users (Complaints: 193; Percentage: 3%)
  10. Television and Electronic Media (Complaints: 188; Percentage: 3%)

There were a total of 1,676 identity theft complaints from Alaska victims.

The following are the types of identity thefts reported:

  1. Government Documents or Benefits Fraud (Complaints: 1,021; Percentage: 61%)
  2. Credit Card Fraud (Complaints: 174; Percentage: 10%)
  3. Phone or Utilities Fraud (Complaints: 97; Percentage: 6%)
  4. Loan Fraud (Complaints: 78%; Percentage: 5%)
  5. Bank Fraud (Complaints: 67; Percentage: 4%)
  6. Employment-Related Fraud (Complaints: 40; Percentage: 2%)
  7. Other (Complaints: 244; Percentage: 15%)
  8. Attempted Identity Theft (Complaints: 46; Percentage: 3%)

OREGON

There were a total of 25,468 identity theft, fraud and other consumer complaints. Of that there were 20,387 fraud and other complaints.

The top 10 fraud and other complaints by Oregon consumers were:

  1. Imposter Scams (Complaints: 4,743; Percentage: 23%)
  2. Debt Collection (Complaints: 3,212; Percentage: 16%)
  3. Telephone and Mobile Services (Complaints: 2,151; Percentage: 11%)
  4. Banks and Lenders (Complaints: 1,518; Percentage: 7%)
  5. Prizes, Sweepstakes & Lotteries (Complaints: 1,383; Percentage: 7%)
  6. Shop-at-Home and Catalog Sales (Complaints: 903; Percentage: 4%)
  7. Auto-Related Complaints (Complaints: 750; Percentage: 4%)
  8. Internet Services (Complaints: 518; Percentage: 3%)
  9. Television and Electronic Media (Complaints: 492; Percentage: 2%)
  10. Credit Cards (Complaints: 432; Percentage: 2%)

There were a total of 5,081 identity theft complaints from Oregon victims.

The following are the types of identity thefts reported:

  1. Government Documents or Benefits Fraud (Complaints: 2,910; Percentage: 57%)
  2. Credit Card Fraud (Complaints: 715; Percentage: 14%)
  3. Phone or Utilities Fraud (Complaints: 313; Percentage: 6%)
  4. Bank Fraud (Complaints: 280; Percentage: 6%)
  5. Employment-Related Fraud: (Complaints: 115; Percentage: 2%)
  6. Loan Fraud (Complaints: 82; Percentage: 2%)
  7. Other (Complaints: 800; Percentage: 16%)
  8. Attempted Identity Theft (Complaints: 191; Percentage: 4%)

MONTANA

There were a total of 5,473 identity theft, fraud and other consumer complaints. Of that there were 4,572 fraud and other complaints.

The top 10 fraud and other complaints by Montana consumers were:

  1. Imposter Scams (Complaints: 1,157; Percentage: 25%)
  2. Prizes, Sweepstakes & Lotteries (Complaints: 653; Percentage: 14%)
  3. Debt Collection (Complaints: 621; Percentage: 14%)
  4. Telephone and Mobile Services (Complaints: 385; Percentage: 8%)
  5. Shop-at-Home and Catalog Sales (Complaints: 222; Percentage: 5%)
  6. Banks and Lenders (Complaints: 178; Percentage: 4%)
  7. Auto-Related Complaints (Complaints: 126; Percentage: 3%)
  8. Television and Electronic Media (Complaints: 122; Percentage: 3%)
  9. Internet Services (Complaints: 99; Percentage: 2%)
  10. Credit Bureaus, Information Furnishers & Report Users (Complaints: 77; Percentage: 2%)

There were a total of 901 identity theft complaints from Montana victims.

The following are the types of identity thefts reported:

  1. Government Documents or Benefits Fraud (Complaints: 544; Percentage: 60%)
  2. Credit Card Fraud (Complaints: 122; Percentage: 14%)
  3. Phone or Utilities Fraud (Complaints: 48; Percentage: 5%)
  4. Bank Fraud (Complaints: 42; Percentage: 5%)
  5. Employment-Related Fraud (Complaints: 16; Percentage: 2%)
  6. Loan Fraud (Complaints: 15; Percentage: 2%)
  7. Other (Complaints: 133; Percentage: 15%)
  8. Attempted Identity Theft (Complaints: 137; Percentage: 4%)

WASHINGTON

There were a total of 45,307 identity theft, fraud and other consumer complaints. Of that there were 36,264 fraud and other complaints.

The top 10 fraud and other complaints by Washington consumers were:

  1. Imposter Scams (Complaints: 8,046; Percentage: 22%)
  2. Debt Collection (Complaints: 6,042; Percentage: 17%)
  3. Telephone and Mobile Services (Complaints: 3,620; Percentage: 10%)
  4. Banks and Lenders (Complaints: 2,539; Percentage: 7%)
  5. Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries (Complaints: 1,845; Percentage: 5%)
  6. Shop-at-Home and Catalog Sales (Complaints: 1,580; Percentage: 4%)
  7. Auto-Related Complaints (Complaints: 1,529; Percentage: 4%)
  8. Television and Electronic Media (Complaints: 1,090; Percentage: 3%)
  9. Internet Services (Complaints: 1,057; Percentage: 3%)
  10. Credit Bureaus, Information Furnishers & Report Users (Complaints: 1,000; Percentage: 3%)

There were a total of 9,043 identity theft complaints from Washington victims.

The following are the types of identity thefts reported:

  1. Government Documents or Benefits Fraud (Complaints: 4,158; Percentage: 46%)
  2. Credit Card Fraud (Complaints: 1,665; Percentage: 18%)
  3. Phone or Utilities Fraud (Complaints: 623; Percentage: 7%)
  4. Bank Fraud (Complaints: 607; Percentage: 7%)
  5. Employment-Related Fraud (Complaints: 350; Percentage: 4%)
  6. Loan Fraud (Complaints: 186; Percentage: 2%)
  7. Other (Complaints: 1,821; Percentage: 20%)
  8. Attempted Identity Theft (Complaints: 402; Percentage: 4%)

WYOMING

There were a total of 3,001 identity theft, fraud and other consumer complaints. Of that there were 2,435 fraud and other complaints.

The top 10 fraud and other complaints by Wyoming consumers were:

  1. Imposter Scams (Complaints: 438; Percentage: 18%)
  2. Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries (Complaints: 399; Percentage: 16%)
  3. Debt Collection (Complaints: 341; Percentage: 14%)
  4. Telephone and Mobile Services (Complaints: 237; Percentage: 10%)
  5. Shop-at-Home and Catalog Sales (Complaints: 140; Percentage: 6%)
  6. Banks and Lenders (Complaints: 111; Percentage: 5%)
  7. Auto-Related Complaints (Complaints: 95; Percentage: 4%)
  8. Television and Electronic Media (Complaints: 67; Percentage: 3%)
  9. Internet Services (Complaints: 59; Percentage: 2%)
  10. Credit Bureaus, Information Furnishers & Report Users (Complaints: 54; Percentage: 2%)

There were a total of 566 identity theft complaints from Wyoming victims.

The following are the types of identity thefts reported:

  1. Government Documents or Benefits Fraud (Complaints: 321; Percentage: 57%)
  2. Credit Card Fraud (Complaints: 80; Percentage: 14%)
  3. Phone or Utilities Fraud (Complaints: 33; Percentage: 6%)
  4. Bank Fraud (Complaints: 22; Percentage: 4%)
  5. Loan Fraud (Complaints: 16; Percentage: 3%)
  6. Employment-Related Fraud (Complaints: 12; Percentage: 2%)
  7. Other (Complaints: 94; Percentage: 17%)
  8. Attempted Identity Theft (Complaints: 20; Percentage: 4%)

#BBBinRipCity: Why the Trail Blazers/BBB Partnership Works

bbb_trailblazers_sponsor_headerIt’s game time! As the Portland Trail Blazers enter the NBA playoffs as a No. 4 seed, capping off what has been an exhilarating 2015 season, many wonder just how far they will go. But for Better Business Bureau, who is a proud sponsor of the Blazers, it can’t get much better than this.

BBB and the Blazers entered into a partnership last year sharing a common interest in educating, community support and consumer protection. And with the help of BBB’s Accredited Businesses, the Blazer/BBB partnership has come to fruition.

So, was it worth it?

You better believe it.

Spencer Mitton with his $10,000 scholarship check from BBB Foundation.
Spencer Mitton with his $10,000 scholarship check from BBB Foundation in March 2015.

I was in awe last month when I watched 18-year-old Spencer Mitton of Anchorage, Alaska, accept a $10,000 scholarship check from BBB CEO Tyler Andrew in front of 20,000 cheering fans during the Portland Trail Blazers halftime show. It was a huge moment for this young man, BBB and the Blazers because it reinforced the commitment that both organizations made to improve the lives of young consumers.

Like the Blazers, BBB strives to stay relevant—which has been increasingly difficult in today’s digital world. A partnership with the Blazers put BBB back into the mix.

During the 2014-15 season, the Blazers partnership connected BBB with 950,000 fans across the Northwest. With the support of our Accredited Business partners, BBB’s brand and mission was showcased in front of fans during every home game, in the community, at an exclusive watch party, during the first-ever Blazers/BBB Business Summit at the Moda Center and now in the playoffs.

This is a partnership that works—for everyone.

BBB staff with Jerome Kersey and Blaze the Trail Cat at BBB Secure Your ID Day in October 2014.
BBB staff with Jerome Kersey and Blaze the Trail Cat at BBB Secure Your ID Day in October 2014.

“We have already had the pleasure of working successfully with BBB,” said Steve Scott, Trail Blazers Vice President of Corporate Partnerships Marketing & Sales. “Based on our experience with BBB during Secure Your ID Day, we know this partnership will provide security to many deserving members of our community.”

Now with the NBA playoffs in motion, BBB and our participating Accredited Businesses have an even bigger opportunity to leave our mark. As thousands of fans pile into the Moda Center, they’ll see BBB’s seal on the LED board, hear about our mission over the radio and read about us in the Rip City Magazine. This connection drives trust and connects consumers with an added resource to help improve their lives.

Just ask Spencer Mitton, who created this 90-second video about BBB:

His video entry on how BBB protects people from identity theft earned him a scholarship to BYU so he could pursue a career in engineering.

So the next time you’re at a Blazers game, or when you’re watching them on TV during the playoffs, look for the seal and be reassured that the Blazers/BBB partnership is not only working, but making a difference to the people we serve.

Cyber Security Is Important for Small Businesses

Image courtesy of Pexels.com
Image courtesy of Pexels.com

Reposted from my column in the Portland Business Tribune.

We’ve all heard about the cyber attacks on large businesses—including Home Depot, Anthem and Target—but small businesses are actually the most common targets of online scam artists.

According to StaySafeOnline.org, 71 percent of data breaches happen to small businesses, and nearly half of all small businesses have been the victim of a cyber attack. Visa Inc reports that 95 percent of credit card breaches it discovers are from its smallest business customers.

Criminals are attracted to small businesses for three reasons:

  1. Due to a lack of resources, they are less equipped to handle an attack.
  2. The information hackers want—credit card credentials, intellectual property, personally identifiable information—is often less guarded on a small business system.
  3. Small businesses’ partnerships with larger businesses provide back-channel access to a hacker’s true targets.

Protecting personal information should be a high priority for any business. A data breach is not just a financial problem, but it will make customers lose trust in a business. Your customers will stop coming to you if they don’t believe their information is safe in your hands. Among small businesses that suffer a breach, a staggering 60 percent will go out of business in six months, according to Experian.

To protect your business and your customers, it is imperative you have safe-measures in place as well as a plan for recovery in the event of a cyber attack. Consider the tips below, and read Better Business Bureau’s comprehensive guide on data security for businesses at bbb.org/data-security.

Minimize what you save. Don’t collect or keep any information you don’t absolutely need. When information is no longer needed, make sure it is destroyed responsibly.

Restrict access. Limit access to data to only the people who need the information in order to do their jobs. Sensitive electronic information should be encrypted, and portable electronic devices should be secured. Any paper records should be locked up when not in use.

Use strong passwords. Never use the default password provided by your IT person or service provider. Each computer user at your company should have his or her own unique password. Never use simple passwords such as your name, your business name, “12345,” “ABCDE” or “password,” and never use the same password for multiple accounts. Strong passwords include a combination of numbers, letters and symbols, and they should be changed every 60 days.

Block intruders. Use up-to-date antivirus protection and firewalls. Most antivirus programs will automatically update the software as new viruses and spyware become known, but you should also run a full scan for viruses and spam at least once a week. Make sure your Internet connection is secure, and keep any guest Wi-Fi networks completely separate from the rest of your networks. Be aware that personal websites, including social networks, can be a gateway for malware and viruses; use business computers for business-only purposes.

Share with caution. Use a secure connection, such as SSL technology, when transmitting data over the Internet. Do not transmit sensitive information via email unless it is encrypted. When mailing physical records, use a security envelope, request package tracking and require the recipient to sign for the package.

Back up information. Back up data on all computers automatically, or at least weekly, including word processing documents, spreadsheets, databases, financial records and human resources files. Store backups in a secure location that is offsite or in the cloud.

National Consumer Protection Week

Your ‪BBB‬ is partnering with the Washington State Attorney General’s Office to celebrate National Consumer Protection Week from March 1-7. Below, we’ve compiled warning signs and tips on 6 of the most common scams we’ve seen affect local consumers.

Be an informed consumer; avoid scams and fraud!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zak/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/zak/

1. Phishing emails ask for personal info and may contain links to malware. Antivirus software can help, but the best protection is a good sense of judgment. Legitimate companies and government agencies never ask you to confirm personal info via email.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rreyes-2010/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/rreyes-2010/

2. Don’t fall victim to an advance-fee loan scam. Check out the company at bbb.org/search. Be skeptical of any offer where you have to pay money up front. Walk away if you’re asked for money immediately, especially if it’s supposedly for “insurance,” “processing,” or “paperwork.”

https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/

3. With overpayment scams, a buyer “accidentally” sends you a check for more than the amount they owe. They ask you to deposit it and wire them the difference. The original check turns out to be a fake, leaving you on the hook to pay the bank for any money withdrawn. Always wait for a deposit to clear before writing checks against the funds—it can take weeks to uncover a fake check.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/filterforge/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/filterforge/

4. Identity theft scams come in all shapes and sizes—grandchildren “stranded” in a foreign country, the hotel front desk “verifying” your credit card in the middle of the night, “charity” solicitations from groups you’ve never supported in the past. Never give your Social Security, bank account or credit card numbers to someone who has contacted you to ask for them.

winner5. In a lottery/sweepstakes scam, you get an unsolicited phone call, email or letter stating you’ve won a prize, but in order to collect the winnings, you have to wire a small sum of money to pay for “processing fees” or “taxes.” You never get your “winnings,” and the scammer has your money. You never have to pay to receive legitimate winnings.

Wixphoto.com | FreeRangeStock.com
Wixphoto.com | FreeRangeStock.com

6. Itinerant contractors move around, keeping a step ahead of the law… and angry consumers. They knock on your door with a story or a deal: a roofer spots missing shingles on your roof, a paver has leftover asphalt and can give you a deal on driveway resealing. Then you can’t track them down after they’ve left you with a shoddy or incomplete job. Never agree to do business with someone you haven’t researched first. Start at bbb.org/search.

Go to ncpw.gov to find more consumer tips and free materials from government and private organizations.

Two Ways Tax Scammers Might Target You

Reposted from Federal Trade Commission.

It’s that time of year — tax time. It’s also a great time to get up to speed on tax-related scams. Here are two ways tax scammers might target you:

1. Tax identity theft
This kind of identity theft happens when someone files a fake tax return using your personal information — like your Social Security number — to get a tax refund or a job. You find out about it when you get a letter from the IRS saying:

  • more than one tax return was filed in your name, or
  • IRS records show wages from an employer you don’t know.

If you get a letter like this, contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490. You can find more about tax identity theft at ftc.gov/taxidtheft and irs.gov/identitytheft.

2. IRS imposter scams
This time scammers aren’t pretending to be you — they’re posing as the IRS. They call you up saying you owe taxes, and threaten to arrest you if you don’t pay right away. They might know all or part of your Social Security number, and they can rig caller ID to make it look like the call is coming from Washington, DC – when it could be coming from anywhere. Leaving you no time to think, they tell you to put the money on a prepaid debit card and tell them the card number right away.

The real IRS won’t ask you to pay with prepaid debit cards or wire transfers, and won’t ask for a credit card number over the phone. When the IRS contacts people about unpaid taxes, they usually do it by mail.

If you have a question about your taxes, call the IRS at 800-829-1040 or go to irs.gov. You can report IRS imposter scams to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) online or at 800-366-4484, and to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.

Ghosting: The Most Sinister Form of Identity Theft

Time to Let Her Go | © User: Fish Gravy / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0
© User: Fish Gravy / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0

Approximately 2.5 million identities are stolen each year from victims who are deceased. The practice of stealing identities from deceased persons is commonly referred to as “ghosting” and represents a significant threat to the surviving family members. This issue strikes particularly close to home at the moment; I have an elderly grandmother who, at 91 years young, has been struggling with chronic health issues for some time. When a loved one passes away it can be difficult to think about identity safety, but a few simple steps can prevent huge headaches down the road. It is my hope that others may benefit from this research.

The following guidelines are suggested for deaths at any age:

  1. Obtain at least 12 copies of the official death certificate as soon as it becomes available. It may be possible to photocopy the original, but remember that death records are public and some organizations may request additional proof.
  2. If there is a surviving spouse or another sort of joint account holder, make sure to immediately notify credit card companies, banks, stock brokers, loan/lien holders and mortgage companies of the death.
  3. The executor/surviving spouse will need to address any outstanding debts by either transferring or closing accounts; if accounts are closed, make sure they are listed as: “Closed. Account holder is deceased.”
  4. Contact all relevant financial institutions that may need to be informed of the death and make sure to follow the correct procedures. Generally, it is best to submit all pertinent information in the first letter to the agency—sent via certified mail with return receipt requested, as this will speed up processing:
    • Name and Social Security number of deceased
    • Last known address
    • Last five years of addresses
    • Date of birth
    • Date of death
  5. Request copies of the decedent’s credit reports, which will show any remaining active accounts that still need to be closed and request an alert be placed on the name to notify potential creditors to not issue any new credit.

A death in the family can be hard enough; don’t let a stolen identity make it worse.

Securing Identities: A Step-by-Step Guide to Document Shredding

Shredded Paper | © Mike Haw / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0
© Mike Haw / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0

Spring is in the air and it’s the perfect excuse I need to begin the process of cleaning and reorganizing my home/desk/life. I’ve never been much of a hoarder but working at Better Business Bureau for the last few years has reinforced my fear of throwing away any pieces of paper that have personal information on them—after all, most identity theft still occurs via physical methods like dumpster diving and mail theft. And in case you’re wondering, I have a lot of pieces of paper that have personal information on them. So in preparation for the upcoming BBB Secure Your ID Day free document shredding event, I decided to take action. Hopefully my strategy will offer some insight to people in similar situations.

1) Decide what to keep and what not to keep. BBB has a great PDF Records Retention Schedule that lists the most common items and how long they should be kept—based on guidelines from the Internal Revenue Service—and I used it to create four groups of documents:

  • Old stuff to keep forever. The bottom line is that some items simply need to be held on to indefinitely—like previous tax returns, retirement account contributions, deeds and mortgage paperwork.
  • Old stuff to keep for seven years. The IRS recommends keeping documents anywhere from one to seven years, but to simplify the process I just decided to make it easy: If something is on the retention schedule at all and less than seven years old, it will go in the “keep” pile.
  • Current stuff to keep. For the current year’s taxes, I need to hold on to everything from the most recent calendar year. However, it won’t do me any good to mix it all in with the seven-year pile so it gets its own group.
  • Stuff to destroy. Everything else. That happy hour receipt is a great reminder of an afternoon well spent, but poses no real reason to be saved.

2) Sort everything. I gathered all the papers I could find and made a big pile. With BBB’s Record Retention Schedule in front of me it was easy to stick to my four groups.

3) Organize the documents that need to be kept. This is by far the most complicated part of the process. Moving forward, I want it to be super easy to find old papers when I need them. To accomplish this I started a filing system. Organizing documents by type is a great way to maximize efficiency—let’s say I need an insurance document but I’m not sure which year it was filed; I just pop out my insurance folder and it’s there, somewhere. Each folder is organized chronologically, with the most recent documents in front and the seven-year-old documents in the back. I created six different folders:

  • Credit Card/Purchasing Documents
  • Bank Documents
  • Investment Documents
  • Insurance Documents
  • Tax Documents
  • Home/Residence & Personal Documents

4) Shred. Now I’m set to shred. BBB offers two free document shredding events per year—one right after taxes are due in April and the other during National Cyber Security Awareness Month in October. For dates, locations and times make sure to regularly check go.bbb.org/akorww-syid.

5) Be proactive in protecting identities. A personal shredder is officially on my shopping list so that I can keep up with secure document destruction all year long. And I signed up for BBB’s eNewsletter, Torch Report: News for the Savvy Consumer, for ID theft prevention tips and scam alerts delivered right to my inbox every month.

Remember, identity theft is a big deal. Shred it and forget it.

I’m a Crime Victim

On a Friday evening in March, my girlfriend and I took the dog for a walk at a local park. We stood on the bluffs over Puget Sound and watched the final sliver of sun disappear behind the Olympic Mountains. It was the perfect end to a perfect week. Until we got back to the car.

Smash & Grab
Smash & Grab

We parked on the side of the road in a quiet, wooded area and were away from the vehicle for about 30 minutes, but that’s all the time it took for someone to smash in the passenger window and grab her purse from the front seat. This is the first time that I have ever been robbed and the feeling of helplessness was extremely frustrating. But my girlfriend has a level head and immediately snapped into action; these are the steps that she took.

  1. Cancel the cards. In the half-hour it took to look up the phone numbers to cancel the credit card and two debit cards, the thief had already spent nearly one thousand dollars at an electronics chain, gas station and liquor store; but because the theft was expediently reported, she’s not liable for those charges.
  2. File a police report. As with most large cities where vehicle vandalism and break-ins—often referred to as “prowls”—are common, this entire process is automated and can be completed online in just a few minutes. The incident number is needed for any insurance claims.
  3. Place a fraud alert. Since her state-issued driver’s license was in the purse, she contacted Experian and asked for a fraud alert; a credit bureau that receives this request must contact the other two bureaus—TransUnion and Equifax—and inform them of the fraud alert. Placing a fraud alert on her name will flag any new accounts that are opened in the next 90 days. And while it’s unlikely that a “smash & grab” criminal—think bored high school kid—is interested in anything more than a quick shopping binge, it’s better to be cautious when credit is at stake.
  4. Monitor credit. She set an email reminder to check her free credit report in a few weeks at annualcreditreport.com for any unusual activity.
Broken Glass
Broken Glass

While this situation is more of an inconvenience than a life-shattering crime, it is my hope that this experience will serve as a reminder of what not to do: I can’t help but think that if her purse had been on the floor or under the seat that this would not have happened. Because I was comfortable in my home town, I let my guard down and forgot that thieves never take a day off. So remember, never leave valuables in unsecured locations. If items must be left in cars, make sure they are not in plain sight.

Better Business Bureau offers a one-stop PDF guide for protecting identities and I strongly recommend taking a few minutes to learn the available resources and understand the proper procedure for dealing with something like this; a delay of just a few minutes can really matter.

And finally, a message to the thief: Karma. That is all.

Full Disclosure: Equifax Inc is a BBB Accredited Business headquartered in Atlanta, Ga.; Experian Information Solutions Inc is a BBB Accredited Business headquartered in Costa Mesa, Calif.; TransUnion LLC is a BBB Accredited Business headquartered in Chicago, Illinois.

What’s the Big Deal with Identity Theft?

BBB PR Manager Adam Harkness speaking at AARP's 2012 Consumer Protection Workshop.
Former BBB Senior Editor Adam Harkness speaking at AARP’s 2012 Consumer Protection Workshop.

When I first started working for Better Business Bureau in 2012, a large part of my job entailed traveling around Alaska to educate folks about common scams and the dangers of identity theft. I spoke at senior centers, Rotary Clubs and universities, and while people always seemed to agree that identity theft was bad, no one really seemed to understand exactly why it was bad. In the age of zero-liability credit and debit cards, why should people care if accounts are compromised? They just get the lost funds back right away anyways…

So what could an identity thief do with a few pieces of personal information? The short list is pretty straightforward:

  • Open a new checking or savings account.
  • Gain access to real accounts.
  • Establish new lines of credit.
  • Change addresses to receive mail.
  • Obtain medical treatment.
  • Commit crimes.
  • Pass background checks.
  • Steal children’s identities.

Yet many of these thefts, if expediently reported, will not likely cause immediate financial repercussions to the victims. But in the long-run, identity theft can affect credit scores which can result in less-than-favorable terms on loans, mortgages and credit accounts—an extra one percent on a 30-year mortgage could add upwards of $4,000 to the total cost. A big problem seems to be the fact that identity theft is such a hot topic in the news lately—consider the recent data breaches at Target and Adobe—and consumers appear to be growing complacent and desensitized to the issue.

The bottom line: If your identity is stolen and used to rack up thousands of dollars in charges, you probably won’t be held accountable for that money; but the damage to your credit report could literally take years to remedy.

A common question I often received while conducting identity theft awareness presentations was about the quality and effectiveness of monitoring services like LifeLock, and my answer remains the same: The services are incredibly effective and if paying that $10 every month eases your concerns then I encourage you to sign up; however, exercising a few proactive steps—for free—can accomplish the same thing:

BBB presentations on a wide range of topics are available to the public at no cost through BBB Foundation; to have a BBB Representative visit your organization just shoot us an email.

Full Disclosure: LifeLock Inc is  a BBB Accredited Business headquartered in Tempe, Arizona.