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Fraud Artists Are Looking to Assume Your Identity

It only takes a few names and numbers for an identity thief to do some real damage. Here's how to protect your assets.

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So you’ve recovered from tax time and you’re surrounded by piles of forms, statements, receipts and other records you no longer need. It’s tempting to just scoop up the whole lot and dump them in the recycle bin. But, if you want to protect your identity, and your finances, that’s the last thing you should do.

“Anything with identifying information should never be put directly in the trash,” said Lynnette Coverly, vice president of marketing at Community West Bank. “Before you toss it, shred it.”

As a bank officer, Coverly is big on protecting her customers’ identities, as well as her own.

“I retain all my credit card solicitations for shredding later," she said. "I never send outgoing mail from my mailbox, and I’m very careful about when, where and to whom I give my Social Security number.”

It all may sound overly cautious, but it’s not that hard for someone to steal your identity, if they really wanted to.

“Locally, what we see a lot of is theft of people’s mail,” said Detective Norma Hansen of the Santa Barbara Police Department. “What they’re looking for typically are identifying items, like driver’s license numbers and checks.”

A favorite, Hansen said, tends to be those convenience checks that credit card companies send out. The suspect will typically have a fake ID made with the name on the check, and then cash the check.

“A lot of stores don’t take a good look at the ID," she said. "They’ll just glance at it and cash the check.”

And that’s just from junk mail. Stolen identities are also commonly used to open unauthorized lines of credit, which can lead to a massive amount of debt and a decimated credit score.

Still, it’s not as if there’s an identity thief around every street corner.

“We’re pretty normal here.  A lot of places that are notorious for skyrocketing meth use, like places in Northern California, or in the High Desert, have a higher percentage of ID theft,” Hansen said.

The one thing you should do, according to both Coverly and Hansen, is to check your credit every year with one of the major consumer credit reporting services: Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. You can do it for free once a year, without harming your credit.

“If you find lines of credit not authorized and names not recognized, dispute them and file a police report," Hansen said. "Any police jurisdiction is mandated to take a credit fraud report, no matter where the charges occurred.”

Law enforcement follows a pretty extensive trail when on an identity theft case, with a detective tracking down purchases, calling merchants and banks, and obtaining surveillance tape, if there is any.

But there’s no substitute for just being careful.

“Don’t leave your personal information in your vehicle. Don’t carry your Social Security card with you,” Hansen said.

“Be leery of incoming e-mails asking for your personal information,” said Coverly, adding that a bank would never ask for its customers’ personal information through e-mail. Such e-mails can link to mirror sites that mimic a trusted Internet business — like eBay, for example — and take your personal information.

You might also decrease the amount of junk mail you get by getting off bulk mailing lists. You’ll also reduce the amount of waste at home, in the process. And, consider going paperless with your bank statements.

To help the community safely get rid of unwanted personal documents, Community West Bank and the Santa Barbara Police Department — along with sponsors Noozhawk, DocuTeam and ShredRite — will hold a community shred event Tuesday at Community West Bank’s new Santa Barbara branch, 1501 State St. The free event runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

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