LIMA — In the 1958 song, “Pretty Boy Floyd,” songwriter Woody Guthrie noted that some people will rob others at gunpoint, while others are robbed with “a fountain pen.” Had Guthrie penned this song in the early stages of the 21st century instead of nearly 100 years earlier, he may have replaced “fountain pen” with “computer.”
Indeed, in this age of increased online shopping, banking and social interaction, there lies around every cyber-corner some shady character ready, willing and able to make off with the hard-earned money of others.
And while the vast majority of consumers believe they are immune from identity theft, the odds are stacked against them.
Public Information Officer Andre McConnahea of the Allen County Sheriff’s Office said that of nearly 800 theft complaints investigated this year by sheriff’s deputies and detectives, approximately one in five — 160 to date — were related to identity theft or theft by deception, which includes fraud of various forms.
And with the holiday shopping season now in full swing — and as increasing numbers of consumers do their gift-buying online — there are certain risks about which consumers need to be aware.
“If you’re shopping online, make sure you’re on a secure website,”advises Cheryl Parson, president of the West Central Ohio branch of the Better Business Bureau. “We’ve seen instances where people think they’re on Amazon (www.amazon.com) but they’re really not. To be on a secure website, the address should start with https: — with the ‘s’ standing for ‘secure.’ If that ‘s’ is not there, it’s not a secure website. Also on a secure website you should see an image that looks like a padlock in the address bar.”
But Parson also said that even if consumers are confident the website they are browsing is secure — doing so on a public WiFi network also puts their private information in jeopardy.
“If consumers are using their phone and using WiFi, they are not on a secure network. It’s public, and you definitely don’t want to be doing any banking or online shopping using public WiFi.” Parson said.
Beware the scammers
While some cyber-thieves sit back and attempt to secretly hack into consumers’ online information, others are more aggressive in their approach. Parson said some online thefts begin with a bogus telephone call and often end with an unsuspecting consumer being scammed out of a large sum of money.
The West Central Ohio branch of the Better Business Bureau serves Allen and five surrounding counties, and Parson said hers is often the first office called when residents believe they may have been victimized by online scam artists.
She said there is one such con game specifically targeting senior citizens that is currently making the rounds in and around northwest Ohio at the present time.
“The new Medicare cards have just gone out, and a lot of people are getting calls asking that they verify the number on their card and also provide their Social Security number,” said Parson. “The trouble is that it’s not Medicare who’s calling. But once the caller has someone’s Social Security number, they can do anything with it.”
A similar scam, said Parson, involves someone claiming to be from the Internal Revenue Service and alleging back taxes are owed. Again, a Social Security number is requested. Many of those scams, said Parson, originate from overseas.
“Senior citizens are the most frequent targets, because many of them are unfamiliar with computers. Today’s technology definitely confuses some of our elders,” said Brad Hoy, a detective with the Allen County Sheriff’s Office. Parson agreed that most online criminals rely on some sort of technological confusion on the part of their targets.
One scenario indicative of a common form of identity theft involves a phone call placed to an unwitting suspect. In some instances, Hoy said, the caller says a family member — perhaps a grandchild — is in some type of legal jeopardy, a situation that can be remedied only if the person on the receiving end of the call will just send some cash electronically.
Hoy said scam victims typically are asked to purchase a Green Dot card or any number of other generic credit cards available at retailers throughout the region to conduct a transaction. Because such cards are not drawn on a particular bank account or financial institution, there is no paper trail as investigators attempt to track down the perpetrators, Hoy said.
“Sometimes we will turn a case like that over to the FBI, but in most cases they (the victims) are just out their money,” the detective said.
Hoy issued the warning that senior citizens — indeed, all residents — have heard a million times: Don’t give out personal information over the telephone to anyone.
“The IRS is not going to call you. The electric company is not going to call you asking for money. They’re going to send letters through the mail,” Hoy said. “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s and make sure you know who you’re dealing with.”
Family scams and other targets
Not all incidents of identity theft originate from afar, Hoy said. Many are homegrown — children or grandchildren stealing from relatives’ bank accounts — while still others stem from enterprising thieves who are always on the lookout for an opportunity.
Lost wallets and purses are a treasure trove for criminals, said the detective, often yielding credit cards that can be used for a variety of unscrupulous purposes. In other instances, he said, females who leave their purses unattended for the briefest of moments in a shopping cart are targeted by criminals.
“People are slick; they’ll snatch a purse and keep on walking, and by the time it’s been discovered they’re already using a stolen credit card. Or they’ll use that stolen credit card to purchase a Green Dot card, which breaks the paper chain and is much harder to detect,” Hoy said.
“It takes a lot of time to track down and watch videos from ATM machines or from retail stores or to have stores make you a copy of their surveillance tapes,” he said. “And some stores erase their tapes after five days.”
In a case earlier this month in which a Lima teenager used his grandmother’s ATM card to make 54 unauthorized bank withdrawals, Hoy said he spent “a couple of days” tracking down the evidence to present to prosecutors.
“Some weeks we may get one call concerning identity theft, and some weeks we’ll get five,” the veteran detective said. “I have a couple of cases I’m working on right now, and one was just sent to the grand jury” for a possible criminal indictment.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (now the governor-elect) created an Identify Theft unit in 2012. Breann Almos, a communications spokesperson for DeWine’s office, said the unit has eliminated approximately $2 million in fraudulent charges for victims of identity theft.
She said it is imperative that consumers keep a constant eye on their online accounts for signs of anything suspicious.
“Our number one tip, as the year wraps up, is that we urge people to go online and check their credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com and look for anything unusual,” said Almos.
Reach J Swygart at 567-242-0464.