Identity fraud cases show significant increases

As posted on July 22, 2012 on www.ajc.com

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Identity fraud is on the rise throughout metro Atlanta, with some counties witnessing a twofold increase in the crime compared with last year, according to police statistics.

Reported offenses doubled in Cobb and Fulton counties and increased 31.5 percent in Gwinnett County. A Federal Trade Commission report released earlier this year ranked Georgia No. 2 in the country for identity theft complaints in 2011. Some authorities attribute the surge, in part, to the struggling economy.

But despite its proliferation, the crime still isn’t always a high priority, said GBI agent Terry Sosebee of the Office of Privacy and Compliance. “Crimes that get the most attention involve violent crime, homicide, kidnapping,” Sosebee said. “[Fraud] doesn’t compare well to drugs.”

Local police, however, say the crime is a major concern. In fact, Gwinnett police have dedicated a unit with two sergeants and 10 detectives to investigating the crime, Cpl. Edwin Ritter said.

“We take every crime serious and investigate them seriously,” said Ritter, a spokesman for the Gwinnett department.

For some other agencies in the state, Sosebee said, finding the resources to vigorously investigate identity fraud can be a challenge.

“You can’t find a grant program if you wanted to set up a unit,” he said. “There are so many victims out there because these guys are just running amok.”

In 2008, Sosebee led an eight-person identity theft task force established after the state gave the GBI jurisdiction to investigate the crime. A year later, budget cuts forced the agency to shutter the unit.

“I felt like we were making some headway,” said Sosebee, who now educates victims and assists local authorities who must now investigate the crimes themselves. He said they are working hard but need more training and experience.

Catching identity thieves is difficult, Sosebee said, because much of the crime happens online or through the phone.

“They’re occurring when no one is around or when someone can’t see it,” he said. “Criminals in identity theft are fairly intelligent people; if they took the intellect they seem to have and put it to good things, they’d probably earn just as well.”

Cpl. Jake Smith, a Gwinnett police spokesman, said tough economic conditions and improved methods have contributed to the rise.

The low probability of jail time is another incentive to thieves, said Smith, who characterized the crime as “higher reward for lower risk.”

Punishment for identity fraud under Georgia law ranges from one to 10 years of imprisonment and a fine up to $100,000. A first-time offender, however, may not even go to jail, Smith said.

Mashara Williams said that’s what happened to the person who stole her identity in 2008, even though the offender bought a car, opened an insurance policy and received traffic tickets in her name. Part of the punishment in lieu of jail time was admitting to all the ways she fraudulently used the identification.

“If she had admitted to everything she had done, I would have felt like it was fair,” said Williams, an Atlanta architect.

But she didn’t. During a routine traffic stop in November in Decatur, Williams — eight months pregnant at the time — was arrested. Police had an arrest warrant stemming from a 2008 traffic citation, but the true offender was the woman who stole Williams’ identity.

Thieves obtain financial information in a variety of ways, such as stealing pre-approved credit cards from mailboxes and buying bundles of stolen card numbers through the Internet. Sosebee said business employees with momentary access to credit cards can steal information with an easy-to-use device the size of an iPhone.

“Phishing,” where scammers trick people into disclosing their personal information by impersonating a trustworthy organization, is another popular technique. Thieves also rummage through trash to find valuable personal information, such as bank account numbers, Lester said.

They can then use the information to open credit cards, take out loans or file tax returns in the victim’s name.

“It’s an easy way to make fast cash,” said Cpl. Kay Lester, a Fulton police spokeswoman

Chris Couillou of the FTC said it’s crucial that people report the crimes and fill out the necessary paperwork to stop the misuse.

“Your identity information is like the money in your wallet,” he said, “and you need to treat it that way.”

Identity fraud cases

Cases of fraud involving identity theft have increased significantly this year in metro Atlanta. The figures below for Cobb and Fulton counties compare the first six months of 2011 against the first six months of this year. The figures for Gwinnett County compare a period from Jan. 1 to July 6 for both years.

Cobb County

2011: 469

2012: 968

Increase: 106 percent

Fulton County

2011: 130

2012: 268

Increase: 106 percent

Gwinnett County

2011: 808

2012: 1,063

Increase: 31.5%

Information was not available from Clayton and DeKalb counties.

Steps to protect yourself

To guard your identity, the GBI suggests:

-- Closely monitoring your credit

-- Shredding financial statements and promptly retrieving mail

-- Calling 1-888-567-8688 to stop pre-approved credit cards from being sent to you

Julie Oinonen, a Georgia attorney, advises identity theft victims:

--To immediately close any compromised accounts and file a police report

-- In cases where bank information is stolen, to obtain a written affidavit from the institution stating you’ve been a victim of fraud

-- To submit a written fraud victim statement to credit agencies and request they notify you before issuing new credit in your name

To stop pre-approved credit cards, call 1-888-567-8688. For to learn more about freezing your credit, visit consumer.georgia.gov/consumer-topics/credit-freeze