POSTED ON DECEMBER 21, 2011:
Everyone Wants To Be You
'Tis the season for thieves to dabble, delight and delve into identity theft
The shopping season is in full swing ó slide into Utica to pick up a few gifts for mom, swing by Woodland for the kids and mosey through downtownís Pop Up shops in search for the perfect bar of soap for grandma.
Swipe, swipe, cash, check, swipe.
Oh, and donít forget about the ultra-convenient online destination where putting in a few numbers and an expiration date ensures your package will arrive safely and securely before the Dec. 25 deadline.
While a simple swipe and sign is the fastest way to get you on your way to the next shopping destination, somewhere there is someone who wants to borrow your digits ó and may decide theyíd like to walk a stolen mile in your shoes.
In a timely report from the U.S. Department of Justice, Oklahoma ranks 27th in the U.S. for frequency of identity theft. The crime is nothing new, but has become one of the fastest growing nationwide, according to socialsecurity.gov.
A well-planned scheme and its execution involves more than just misuse of credit cards -- savvy thieves have been able for some time to steal whole identities; using social security numbers to open new lines of credit, create fake documents, etc.
"So if someone gets a hold of your social security number, they can get a job, receive medical treatment, file tax returns before you do, open a mortgage, a cell phone account, and commit a crime," said Mike Prusinsky, senior vice president of corporate communications for LifeLock -- an identity-theft protection company. "If that happens to you, you're suddenly in that web where now you have to prove your innocence."
As a student at Oklahoma State University, Gloria Miller found herself in a financial conundrum more than once.
"I went to use my card and it kept getting denied for little purchases," Miller said.
After calling her bank and receiving little information on the matter, Miller visited her usual branch of Midfirst Bank in Stillwater and received a full account history listing activity from Burbank, Ca. to Philadelphia, Pa.
"I figured something happened at a nail salon or restaurant because I had never bought anything online," Miller said.
Midfirst was quick to reimburse all charges with little fuss.
"The bank reimbursed all of my money, all the purchases that were not me and they reimbursed the overdraft fees. I got everything reimbursed and it didn't cost me a penny," Miller said.
Since this, Miller has had her identity stolen twice more. Her physical id (driver's license) was stolen, allegedly, when Miller went through a bank drive-in. Miller says she pressed charges when the culprit was identified but nothing has come of the case.
Later, her Shell gasoline card was stolen and after several weeks of paperwork and niceties, the company credited the funds back to Miller's account. The thief was never identified and charges have not been brought.
Sergeant Mark McKenzie of the Tulsa Police Financial Crimes Unit says the biggest current identity theft issue in Tulsa is counterfeit checks produced from thieves gathering identity from personal property.
"It's [identity theft] everywhere, from Walmart to mom and pop convenient stores," McKenzie said.
"Your guard should be up as far as anyone disappearing with your card because they can skim that track data that's on your card and create a counterfeit card -- selling that data over the internet."
McKenzie says that while putting stops in place once a card has been stolen is probably the easiest step of the whole process, identity theft can have severe consequences and truly resolving the matter can take several months.
"View your personal information as a commodity these days. You wouldn't leave $100 bill laying out anywhere. Your own personal information and anyone related to that should be highly protected," McKenzie said.
Once an identity is stolen, recovering losses from a financial institution may be one of the easiest steps in the process. If crimes were committed under your social security number or extra lines of credit were taken out, the road to resolution can be difficult.
Prosecuting white-collar offenders is equally difficult. The crime is usually electronic and -- both experienced and novice -- offenders are often hidden behind a computer screen, making sure their own identities are well protected.
Unfortunately, capturing the thief does not mean that their crime spree is over. White collar crimes often come with light sentences and may do little to deter a thief from stealing again.
"In the court system, the priority goes to violent crime, so property crime suspects are not receiving lengthy sentences so it adds to the crimes because they are difficult to prove, [have] layers of anonymity, and the benefits outweigh the prosecution," McKenzie said. "Violent crime needs to be a priority but there is a substantial cost to the taxpayer when there isn't a deterrent effect."
In light of the increased spending during the holidays, AAA Oklahoma has a few suggestions so thieves don't get away with their You impersonation:
Use cash or credit only. Since debit cards are directly linked to your bank account, your money is at greater risk.
Clean out your wallet. Social security cards and unused credit cards should be in a safe location at home -- not a back pocket or bottomless purse.
Search before you swipe. Skimming devices can be attached to ATMs and gas pumps. If something looks out of place, go elsewhere. Vigilance is key.
Stay off public Wi-Fi. While the shared space might be great for some online activities, anything that requires a password is at risk on public hotspots.
So guard your digits during this festive season. You wouldn't want a sad impersonator to fill a stolen stocking without your permission.
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