The Federal Trade Commission has listed identity theft as the No. 1 consumer complaint for the past 12 years. Andrea Rouse of Roseboro found out recently, after seeing her information fall into the wrong hands, how scary a prospect that could be.
“I started getting phone calls from out of state that I didn’t recognize and I decided to answer one of them,” said Rouse. “They told me that they had received my application for a new car, but I had not stated what kind of car I wanted. I said ‘I didn’t fill out an application for a car.’ So then I began receiving emails, texts, phone calls, everything — my information had been stretched out so far to different places.”
When a car dealership from Dunn called Rouse, she asked what information the dealership had on her. The representative recited back to Rouse not just her name, address and phone number, but her Social Security number and her employer.
She has safety software similar to LifeLock, but received no alerts from it.
“What I’m thankful for is they didn’t run my credit yet until they talked to me, so I didn’t get any alerts,” said Rouse. “But one did run it, and it was a company out of Nevada, so they let that slip through.”
According to the FTC, once someone suspects their personal information is being misused, acting quickly is the best way to limit the damage.
Unexplained bank account withdrawals or charges on credit card or missing bills or other mail may be a sign of identity theft. Debt collectors call about unknown debts are another sign.
“I got one person from Virginia that was calling three times a day,” said Rouse. “They said (my information) was from some type of marketing group that sent it out. They said I had filled out some kind of online application, which I had not. That marketing group was sending my information to all these dealerships and companies. I told him, however it was he received my information, I would never do an online application for a car and to take my name out of the system. If I could find the marketing group I would contact them and tell them to take my information out of their system as well.”
Her employment on file, recited to Rouse, was from a previous employer so she believes the information was purchased from a database.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” she said. “I think they purchased my information.”
She said she does not believe the group had her credit or debit card numbers, but were trying to finance cars with her other personal information.
“The fact of the matter was they were trying to run my credit, which is not good for my credit score. It was just a scary situation,” said Rouse. “I talked to a couple other people and I had a friend of mine who had $2,000 taken out of their bank account. It is just scary. I had my whole number cited recited back to me, my address, my home phone and my cell phone — they had it all.”
Really, Rouse said she does not have an idea how her information got out.
Local law enforcement said there are many steps that can be taken to keep personal information private.
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said people should only carry necessary credit cards and never have personal identification numbers (PIN) or Social Security numbers in their wallets or purses.
Residents should watch billing cycles for missed bills, view all statements for odd charges and shred old bank statements, insurance forms, credit applications and other documents. Additionally, citizens should beware of emails that claim to come from a bank, Internet Service Provider, business or charity and ask you to confirm your personal information or account numbers, the sheriff said.
No personal information should be given over the phone, by email or submitted online unless using a secure website or encryption software. According to the sheriff, incoming mail should not be left sitting in an unlocked mailbox for potential thieves.
According to the FTC, identity thieves may pretend to work for legitimate companies, medical offices, clinics, pharmacies or government agencies, or a trustworthy institution, and convince the person to reveal information by phone or email. Or they may simply rummage through garbage, the trash of businesses or public dumps.
Once those thieves have personal information, they can drain bank accounts, run up charges on credit cards, open new utility accounts or get medical treatment on someone else’s health insurance. In the case that documents are believed to be lost and information stolen, that person should contact their credit reporting companies and place a fraud alert on their credit file.
An identity thief can also file a fraudulent tax refund.
Treasury Department investigators said in August that the IRS may have delivered more than $5 billion in refund checks to identity thieves who filed fraudulent tax returns for 2011. They estimate another $21 billion could make its way to ID thieves’ pockets over the next five years.
Although the IRS detected about 940,000 fraudulent returns for last year claiming $6.5 billion in refunds, there were potentially another 1.5 million undetected cases of thieves seeking refunds after assuming the identity of a dead person, child or someone else who normally wouldn’t file a tax return.
IRS officials said the growth of identity theft-related fraud is one of its biggest challenges.
However, Rouse’s information was obtained, she said it has caused her to cease doing anything online, and she no longer uses credit and debit cards at gas stations, having heard about a device used to target gas tanks for card information.
“Now, with technology, you have thieves and the (down) economy, people are going to the worst lengths to make things happen,” said Rouse. “We’re all opened up to it right now, especially with the technology. Now I’ve been hit. I’m not using my information electronically at all.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.