Identity theft cases on rise, Columbus police warn

June 12, 2009

Neal Wagner -

 

Tough economic times breed desperation, and desperation frequently leads to crime, according to Columbus Police Department Capt. Fred Shelton. 

 

And although many envision theft in the form of a late-night burglar or a violent robber, not all methods of stealing are so personal, Shelton explained. 

 

"With the economy tightening up, we are unfortunately going to be seeing more and more of this," Shelton said as he explained the city''s recent rise in identity theft crimes. 

 

"Last year, we had a lot of identity theft cases reported. There were 43 cases reported in the city in 2008," Shelton added. "So far this year, we have had 21 reported cases, which is about the same or a little more than we had seen at this time last year." 

 

Identity theft can happen in many different ways, but Internet and mail theft cases traditionally have caused the largest number of cases, Shelton said.  

 

"Not too long ago, we had a case where someone in Seattle, Wash., stole a Columbus lady''s credit card information off the Internet and went out and purchased golf clubs," said Shelton. "The biggest problem with these crimes is that the violators could be anywhere. 

 

"With the Seattle case, we had to work with another agency to find and arrest the suspect," Shelton added. "It becomes complicated when crimes happen outside our jurisdiction or even outside the state, and the Internet identity theft cases are usually like that." 

 

In addition to Internet and mail theft cases, a new form of identity theft recently has been on the rise. As more Americans become impacted by the nation''s economic downturn, law enforcement agencies across the nation have been reporting an increase in health insurance theft. 

 

"The new thing lately has been for people to steal someone else''s health insurance information and go get a major operation done," Shelton said. "Then the victim will get the bill for it and say ''hey, I didn''t get my tonsils taken out last month.'' 

 

"The rising cost of health care is really starting to make this type of crime more common," Shelton added.  

 

Although the lengthy list of ways a criminal can steal a person''s identity may sound frightening, the CPD is offering several suggestions to help you keep your information to yourself. 

 

"The No. 1 thing is to always keep a close eye on your account activity, whether it''s a debit card, credit card, bank account or whatever," Shelton explained. "People also need to make sure they are shopping at a reputable Web site if they are going to buy things on the Internet. 

 

"A thief only needs a very small amount of your personal information to steal your identity," Shelton added. "The thing I always say is that if a deal or a Web site doesn''t sound right, it isn''t right." 

 

Shelton also encouraged area residents to remain watchful when giving their credit cards or personal information to some business employees.  

 

"Now, I''m not trying to pick on a particular company or individual, because 99 percent of retail, restaurant and hotel employees are good, honest people," Shelton said. "But you need to make sure you check your account activity regularly just in case you gave your card or information to a dishonest person somewhere. 

 

"If people go on vacation or out to eat somewhere where they allow the server to handle their credit card, it''s never a bad idea for them to double-check their account activity just to be safe," Shelton added. "It''s also important to pay attention to your surroundings and to remember the names of people who handle your credit cards. You just can''t be too careful." 

 

Those found guilty of identity theft can expect stiff penalties and possible years of jail time. 

 

Anyone convicted of using someone else''s identity to purchase more than $250 worth of goods faces a minimum two-year jail sentence and could spend up to 15 years behind bars. Felony identity theft also carries up to a $10,000 fine. 

 

Those found guilty of using someone else''s identity to buy less than $250 worth of merchandise also could face the same penalties. However, a court judge has the option of reducing the charge to a misdemeanor if the infraction involves less than $250. 

 

Misdemeanor identity theft charges can bring a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. 

 

Although criminal charges can be brought against those convicted of identity theft, victims must handle resolving civil impacts of the crimes, such as working with credit companies to remove fraudulent charges, themselves, Shelton explained. 

 

"Some people consider it a victimless crime because they aren''t putting a gun in your face when they take your money," said Shelton. "People have found that it is a way to get money without doing a whole lot of work. 

 

"But the penalties are high, and it is definitely something we are looking for and cracking down on," Shelton added. "It can be scary, but if you just remain aware of what''s going on, you can really cut down your chances of becoming a victim."