Staff photo by Philip Wright
JEROME Police Chief Allen Muma speaks to residents at Cottonwood Village about how not to become victims of ID theft.
There won't be a gun in our ribs. No breaking-and-entering. No violence.
Identity theft doesn't mean a master criminal has undergone plastic surgery to become his or her victim. These thieves don't need to look like us to steal our money. They don't even have to know what we look like. They need only information -- some important numbers -- to empty our bank accounts, ruin our credit and even give us a criminal record.
Allen Muma, chief of police in Jerome, spoke to residents of Cottonwood Village Tuesday morning about identity theft.
"Arizona is now the No. 1 state for identity theft," Muma told the two dozen seniors who came to learn how to avoid being victims. "And you are the No. 1 targets."
He said elderly people aren't the only victims of I.D. theft, but they are the most common victims. Single seniors, especially women, are the most vulnerable of all, Muma said.
Muma said identity theft can be as simple as a thief using someone's name. When the thieves are able to put the victims' names together with bank account numbers, credit card numbers, social security numbers or other forms of personal information, they have everything they need. Then they can empty bank accounts, use their victims' credit, establish new lines of credit, get current credit limits increased or obtain loans.
In short, identity thieves can financially ruin their victims. At the least, they can damage a victim's good credit. In more rare instances, thieves develop criminal records in the names of their victims.
"It is easier to protect yourself against identity theft than it is to correct it once you're a victim," Muma said.
Muma said the first step is for seniors to make certain that such a crime has not been committed against them. "As you sit here, you could already be the victim of identity theft," he said. "The best defense is to check your credit."
He recommended checking credit information at all three of the national credit reporting agencies. Beginning in October, all three agencies must give people one free credit report per year, Muma said. And once per year is the minimum that Muma said people should check their credit reports.
If someone is using your name or your credit without permission, it will soon show up on your credit report at one or all three of the reporting agencies.
Muma laid out four steps to take once identity theft has been discovered. The first is to contact the business that shows you owe money or used credit.
"You must contact the business in writing," he said. He recommended sending the letter by certified or registered mail with a return receipt requested. Such notification must be made within 60 days of discovering that you've been a victim.
Step two is to contact the police, and Muma strongly recommends contacting your local police and insisting that they fill out a police report. He said the police report may be invaluable later in protecting the victim.
Contacting all three of the credit-reporting agencies is step three. He said to notify them that you've been a victim of fraud. "They must investigate within 30 days," he said.
Muma said victims should then follow up with another credit report in three to four months to make certain that the incorrect information has been removed from the credit report.
The final step Muma recommends is to contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) because that agency tracks such crimes through a database.
"They can see patterns, so we can combat this kind of crime," Muma said.
Once people have determined they are not currently the victims of identity theft, each person must take steps to prevent becoming a victim.
Muma said people must keep their important documents and account information private. That includes not only bank and credit card information but also social security numbers.
"Do not put social security numbers on checks or driver licenses," he said. He also said to be very careful to whom you give those numbers. He said that tax agencies, hospitals and banks might have legitimate reasons for requesting your social security number. Others may also have good reasons, but people should ask questions to find out why anyone needs that particular information.
"Anybody can ask for your social security," Muma said, "but you don't have to give it."
"We also need to keep a tidy house," Muma said. "Don't make it easy for someone to become a thief."
He said that all documents should be shredded before being put out with the trash, especially those with important account information. "You have no right of privacy once your trash is outside," Muma said.
Also, Muma warned to be very careful about what mail or documents are sitting out in view or are easy to find within your home or apartment. An insurance paper, credit card invoice or bank statement may have all the information someone would need to steal your identity.
For information from the three major credit-reporting agencies, contact Equifax at 800-685-1111; Experian at 888-397-3742; and TransUnion at 800-888-4213.
To contact Chief Muma, call the Jerome Police Department at 634-8992.