Identity Theft – It’s not a matter of if, but when

Identity theft is on the rise nationwide and locally. The way Lt. Chad Parker sees it, it’s just a matter of time before a person’s identity is compromised.

“It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when,” said Lt. Parker, who supervises the Collier County Sheriff’s Office’s Financial Crimes Bureau, which investigates all of the identity theft and fraud cases reported in the county.

Lt. Parker has been delivering that message to large crowds at identity theft awareness presentations around Collier County. These presentations, sponsored by CCSO, are free and open to the public. Lt. Parker is also available to talk to private groups and individuals who would like book a speaker for an event.

Lt. Parker said his goal is to educate the public about how to minimize their chances of becoming a victim of identity theft, how to proactively monitor their credit history and then what steps to take once they become a victim. Dozens of people turned out to hear Lt. Parker recently at Aston Gardens, a senior living community in North Naples.sheriff identity theft

“I was sitting on the edge of my seat the whole time,” said Amanda Barton, director of community relations for Aston Gardens. “The information is so valuable.”

It’s no wonder community interest is high. Identity theft – stealing someone else’s personal information to commit theft or defraud – is one of the fastest growing crimes in the country.

Ten million Americans fall victim to ID theft each year, resulting in more than $50 billion in losses to businesses, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Florida ranks No. 1 in the nation for identity theft complaints with 130,449 filed — or 694 per 100,000 of the population, according to the FBI.

There were more than 1,000 reported cases of identity theft in Collier County in 2012 compared to a total of 381 cases in all of 2011, for a 260 percent increase. The majority of the 2012 cases were related to fraudulent tax returns, Lt. Parker noted.

Lt. Parker knows about identity theft firsthand, falling victim in May 2012. Someone charged around $60 for purchases in the United Kingdom to his debit card. He said he was able to catch it right away because he regularly monitors his bank statements online for suspicious activity Lt. Parker reported the suspicious charges to his financial institution and after filling out some paperwork was able to resolve the theft.

Although he has no proof, Lt. Parker said he believes the theft might have occurred when he paid for a pizza by swiping his debit card through a portable card reader that was hooked up to the delivery person’s smartphone. Such card readers store the  information from the magnetic strip that criminals can then use to create a duplicate card later.

“One week later to the day my card was used in England to make online purchases for food,” Lt. Parker said.

That experience, along with all of the research he has done on identity theft, has led him to change the way he pays for things.

“When I first started these presentations I told people I used my debit card everywhere,” Lt. Parker said. “Now I just use my credit card.”

That’s because credit cards offer protection from identity theft that debit cards don’t, according to Lt. Parker. For example, with a credit card, your liability for fraudulent charges caps at $50 as long as you report the fraud within 30 or 60 days (depending on the company). However, if you’re using your debit card online and someone gains access to it, they can clean out your checking account before you even learn there’s a problem. It’s likely you’ll get part of that money back, but possible that it can take a while, and that you won’t get it all.

If you must use your debit card, Lt. Parker advises doing so at a point of sale where the card never leaves your hand. With one exception: gas stations. That’s because fuel pumps are out of direct sight of attendants, providing an opportunity for thieves to  plant illegal bank card skimmers.

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