Hazel Heckers knows identity theft can be life-threatening.
Over the course of her six years as a victims’ advocate at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, she’s seen the crime disrupt everything from victims’ home health care schedule to organ transplants. She’s also seen it destroy the credit of domestic abuse victims and keep them from leaving toxic relationships.
Even so, many victims of identity theft don’t report it, she said. Many of them don’t know there are resources available to help them, or they don’t understand how reporting might help other victims by providing police with more information.
According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s website, identity theft “occurs when someone obtains, possesses transfers or uses the personal identifying information of another without that person’s permission.” The crime encompasses theft of financial information, such as bank account numbers or passwords. It’s not a crime that grabs headlines often, but its effects can be devastating for victims.
“(Victims) feel violated, because someone stole from them,” said Christy Hardwick, a Greeley Police Department fraud specialist. “It’s a ripple effect of fear.”
When Hardwick first started as a fraud specialist in the mid-2000s, she said fraudulent checks were common. Over the years, she’s seen thieves become increasingly dependent on the internet, though, and watched as a black market economy for stolen identities sprang up online.
Heckers said she’s noticed the same thing.
“It’s easy to buy IDs just like it’s easy to buy drugs,” she said. “People who deal in identity numbers use the openness of the internet, and it’s not that hard.”
Because of that, before Heckers gives advice on preventing identity theft she offers a disclaimer by saying there’s no guaranteed form of protection. But there are things a person can do to reduce their risk of being victimized.
“Don’t make it easy,” she said. “Don’t give away personal identification information, like date of birth or a Social Security number. People can get talked into that pretty easily.”
Strange as it might sound, victims are often convinced to give away personal information over the phone. For example, the Weld County Sheriff’s Office has received several reports of a person making calls and claiming to be a sheriff’s deputy. The impostor says he is attempting to resolve an arrest warrant and asks for the victim’s name and address.
In the digital era, people often don’t know they are victims until it’s too late. Thieves can pull identities en masse through online hacks and security breaches. That’s why she also suggests antivirus protection for smart phones.
“Most of us do more on our smart phones than on our home computers,” Heckers said.
Her third piece of advice is to use a credit card instead of a debit card as often as possible. If thieves obtain credit card information, they have access to a victim’s credit, she said. But if they gain access to debit card information, they can tap into a victim’s bank account and, oftentimes, banks are unaware of the theft. In addition, Heckers said victims only have a small window to report the theft of debit card information before they can be held responsible for the damage.
“And using your debit card as a credit card isn’t safe either,” she added.
There’s no surefire protection against identity theft. Heckers said a smart criminal can always find ways to get the information they’re looking for. But taking precautions — and reporting the crime when it happens — helps both victims and police.
“It’s en emotional roller coaster,” she said. “It cuts to the very core of who you are.”
(c)2017 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.)
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