Moultrie Observer

Local News

March 15, 2011

Identity theft in the age of social media

MOULTRIE — As social networking, music file sites and music-sharing have allowed individuals to share with the world and friends, identify thieves have taken notice.

While digging through garbage is still a popular way for thieves to gather personal and financial information from the unwary, anyone with an Internet connection can snoop through Facebook files looking for the same information or a way to access accounts for fraudulent purposes.

Music-sharing services that allow other users to access computer music files, for example, also can be a gateway into last year’s tax returns, said Mike Prusinski, senior vice president of corporate communications for LifeLock, an identity theft protection services company.

Music-sharing services “also have document files,” he said. “I can go in and type ‘2009 tax return.’ I type it in and it [another person’s return] is  now on my computer. We have people who have these programs on their computer.”

In 2010 Georgia climbed to number four on the list of states with the most complaints of identify thefts, up from seventh in 2009, the Federal Trade Commission reported. Two other Southern states also made that dubious list, with Florida at number one and Texas at five. The top five states were rounded out with Arizona at number two and California at number three.

Among cities, Albany, Ga., was 40th from the top out of 1,000 cities, with Valdosta at number 92. Moultrie is not listed in the report.

In Georgia the largest complaint was fraud related to governmental documents and benefits fraud at 31 percent.

Examples include a thief filing a tax return using another person’s information or someone fraudulently filing for welfare or worker’s compensation for which he is not entitled, Prusinski said. Other top complaints in the state included credit card fraud, phone or utilities fraud, and bank fraud, which includes debit card fraud and other unauthorized account activities.

The report does not give the full picture because not everyone who is an identify-theft victim realizes that it should be reported to the FTC, Prusinski said.

“We need consumers to know if you’re a victim, we want you to file a police report, we want you to report it to the FTC,” he said. “Identity theft isn’t just about credit cards anymore. We’re seeing across the country that bank fraud is moving down the list.”

Among Americans, identity theft topped the list of consumer complaints made to the FTC representing 19 percent of complaints, a report released March 8 said. Following that were debt collection at 11 percent of complaints, Internet services and prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries each with 5 percent and shop-at-home and catalog sales at 4 percent.

While the Internet has made it easier to access personal information, old-fashioned paper records also are a source, Prusinski said. All kinds of people, from medical offices to schools ask for Social Security numbers. In many cases when the records are no longer needed they are thrown out with the garbage.

“The next time somebody gives you an opportunity where they ask for your Social Security number, ask what they want it for,” he said. “Ask why do you need it, how are you storing it, and if I get a letter from your organization that I was a victim of identity theft because of you what are you going to do about it. Make a decision as an educated consumer of whether you want to give them your Social Security number or not, or can you go to other service providers.”

For those who can do so, Prusinski also recommended using credit cards instead of debit cards. Credit cards use a bank’s money, while recovering money fraudulently taken from a checking account can be a nightmare and take a long time.

“It could take a day, a week, it could take longer, and you may get your money back,” he said.

Another rising trend in identity thefts is “friend-fraud,” Prusinski said, including family members and roommates using personal information to steal from acquaintances.

Another popular way to commit theft involves gaining access to a Facebook account by figuring out the account user’s password.

In that case, Prusinski said, the thief locks the user out and sends a video to all of his friends. Once those people download the video, which includes malicious software, the thief has access to their computers.

Those who steal the information, whether through digging through garbage or online, can either use it or sell it to others through black market websites, Prusinski said.

“When you have organized crime involved, individuals know very well where to find that information,” he said. “It doesn’t take long for that information to make its way overseas.”

Additional information on identity theft can be found at the FTC’s website at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/.

 

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