Photo by Shane Harms
According to the Seattle Police Department’s Crime Statistics, Part II Offenses in Seattle, there were 2,039 cases of fraud from Jan-Sept. of 2013.

Inside the can: One man’s trash, another man’s identity

By Christy Wolyniak

In the world of iPhones and an app for every maneuver of the day, individuals often enter personal information with the swipe of a finger, a tap here and an email there. However, severe emotional and financial stress can occur when and if this information is compromised, which happens more often than some may realize.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, 9 million people are victims to identity theft each year. This confounding reality is evident in the number of cases that occur in the Seattle area alone. On March 24, 2014, the Seattle Police Department filed 15 cases of identity theft and 3 cases of check fraud in a single day.

Fewer cases of check fraud might be due to the increase in online banking, resulting in less paper checks, though it still does occur.

Perpetrators access personal information through malware and internet hacking also known as ‘man-in-the-middle’ attacks, stolen mail, lost or stolen debit or credit cards and non-secure online transactions.

According to the Seattle Police Department’s Crime Statistics there were 2,039 cases of fraud from January to September of 2013. Though a decrease from the 3,020 cases reported in 2008, fraud and more specifically, identity theft, remains a consistent problem.

Sometimes a fraudster will pose as a legitimate company to persuade an individual to offer up personal information over the phone, text or email. It is important to remember that legitimate companies and bank institutions will never request personal information in this manner.

Tax season brought with it its own issues as perpetrators assumed the identity of Seattle police officers or IRS agents over the phone in an attempt to defraud people out of thousands of dollars. The Seattle Police Blotter reported on March 20 that a woman received several calls from men claiming they had a warrant out for the victim’s unpaid taxes. The victim refused to pay.

Earlier this month, hackers gained access into the system of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle on March 4, leaving employees and volunteers at risk of tax refund fraud – one of the largest cases seen on the west coast. The FBI and IRS are working with forensic security firm, Stroz Friedberg on this case.

According to a report by the Bureau of Justice, "Statistics Victims of Identity Theft in 2012," “The most common way victims discovered the identity theft in 2012 was when a financial institution contacted them about suspicious activity on an account. About 2 out of 3 victims did not know how the offender obtained their information, and 9 out of 10 did not know anything about the identity of the offender.”

Taking prompt action to clear up any repercussions following an identity breach greatly reduces the emotional toll such a crime has on someone, as the Bureau of Justice noted in their survey. Financial losses totaled $24.7 billion in 2012 due to identity theft, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.

“Among identity theft victims who spent 6 months or more resolving financial and credit problems due to the theft, 47 percent experienced severe emotional distress, compared to 4 percent who spent a day or less,” stated the Bureau of Justice.

Since 2013, the IRS has over 3,000 employees working on identity theft issues that take about 180 days to resolve; a timeframe the IRS said they are working to reduce.

Saved credit or debit card information on phone apps can also incite risk for identity theft if the companies that created the application failed to validate security certificates also known as a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) that protects personal information against any outside interception.

The FTC recently charged Fandango and Credit Karma with misrepresentation of security on their mobile apps by failing to implement SSL, exposing consumers’ debit and credit card information.

The FTC recommends only entering personal information using secure Wi-Fi connections that include ‘https’ at the top of the page, showing that information sent on the site will be encrypted, or jumbled, making it more difficult for hacker interception. When shopping or entering personal information over a mobile device, it is important to use a secured wireless network or the phone’s data network (3G or 4G).

Visiting the company’s physical website, opposed to entering information over a mobile app, enables users to identify the safety of a site.

Learning how to protect against identity theft and fraud is vital for individuals, as hackers and fraudsters seek new, cleverer ways of gaining information. The SPD offers basic safety tips for how to protect against identity theft on their website.

Some helpful tips include:
• Immediately sign new credit and debit cards, compare monthly financial statements with receipts
• Ensure any information entered through a mobile app is protected by SSL and use a secure connection
• When creating passwords, avoid using your mother’s maiden name and consecutive numbers
• Review credit reports annually, visit annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228
• Do not leave mail in the mailbox for more than a day, shred all mail with personal information
• Never complete online transactions unless there is a padlock icon on the top strip of the website, or use an https site that protects personal information

For more information on how to prevent fraud and protect against identity theft, visit stopfraud.gov.

We encourage our readers to comment. No registration is required. We ask that you keep your comments free of profanity and keep them civil. They are moderated and objectionable comments will be removed.