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Identity theft: A problem for all

By Ruth Longoria

There were about 250,000 cases of identity theft reported across the country last year. About 5,600 of those were in the state of Washington and reported to the Federal Trade Commission. Many more incidents go unreported. That's a few of the statistics shared by state Attorney General Rob McKenna Thursday afternoon as he addressed the Mercer Island Chamber of Commerce during its monthly meeting.

``This is a problem that businesses and individuals need to be aware of. We have to learn how to protect ourselves -- it's a very sensible thing to do,'' McKenna said. ``Identity theft can go on for months and months without anyone being aware of it. And the longer it goes on before you find out about it, the more damage can be done.''

Although many instances occur after mail is stolen, or information is accessed online, sometimes private information is obtained by unscrupulous people who work for restaurants or other businesses, or even people at a level of trust in which they can access personnel or student files, McKenna said.

He told of a woman whose social security card number was taken out of her community college records file. Thirty-five credit cards were fraudulently opened in her name. She found out her identity had been stolen when a car dealer called to ask her why she hadn't been making payments on her new Chevrolet Suburban. ``You know, the white one,'' McKenna mimicked the dealer's call. The woman hadn't purchased a new car, white or otherwise.

``The identity theft took a tremendous toll on her. I don't think there's anything like having your identity stolen, outside of a physical crime on you,'' he said.

McKenna listed several ways crooks get access to personal information, including data skimmers, a device that (when set up near a credit card swipe device) confuses victims into swiping their card and personal identity number (PIN) into the skimmer. Data skimmers have been reportedly used near gasoline pumps and ATM machines, as well as by some employees to swipe a card, in addition to swiping the card for purchases at a business.

The Internet also is a way criminals illegally gain access to information, through what's known as ``phishing.'' With phishing, scammers pretend to be an agency or business that they aren't, often-times displaying the logo of a large bank or other institution. Many times, victims fall for the scam and follow a link to a familiar-looking site, such as a phony PayPal or credit card site, where they are asked to provide bank account, social security numbers or other information.

And Internet criminals aren't shy about claiming to be from federal agencies. The recent IRS scam involves an e-mail in which the phony IRS claim the victim is owed a tax refund. In the e-mail message from ``taxrefunds@irs.gov'' a link is embedded to a site where victims can go to ``collect their refund.'' The site then instructs the respondent to enter their social security number and credit card numbers so the refund can be deposited to their account, according to Information Week.

Another way crooks take advantage of Internet users is through spyware. Spyware allows the perpetrator to get information off of a victim's computer hard drive, such as what kind of sites the victim goes to and other personal information. Protection against spyware is available free from Microsoft, but it's important that Internet users get spyware blockers from reputable companies, McKenna said. ``There are companies selling fake protection, that show you how much spyware is on your computer, but really they are the ones that put it there.

Emmett Maloof, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said he was glad McKenna was available to speak to Island business people about what, Maloof said, is ``a problem that's exploding.''

Maloof said he has experienced spyware problems on his personal computer. ``I'd been looking at housing sites and started getting all these e-mails about housing,'' he said. ``I thought, `who the heck is doing this?' There were all these `cookies' keeping track of everywhere I'd go.''

In addition to purchasing spyware and virus protection, McKenna said, there are other ways to protect your identity. One way is by shredding documents instead of throwing them in the trash. But, documents should be cross-shredded, he said, because often-times the crooks who find shredded paperwork have time on their hands. ``There have been meth labs discovered where the criminals had taped together long strips of billing statements and other information,'' he said.

Catching and prosecuting identity thieves can be difficult, in part because the crimes often involve several jurisdictions. The identity may be stolen in one state, the perpetrator lives in another, and the information is used in a third or fourth state. With so many criminals of more compelling crimes, there really isn't prison space for identity theft criminals to do hard time. ``Prevention has to be our emphasis,'' he said. ``We all have to work together and learn how to protect ourselves .''

Protect yourself against identity theft

^la Get a locking mailbox.

^la Cross-shred personal information and documents.

^la Get off credit card lists by calling 1-888-5-OPTOUT or on the Internet at www.optoutprescreen.com.

^la Download free spyware protection from Microsoft.com.

^la Don't give personal information to callers or other people you don't know.

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