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Christine Metz

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Identity theft can happen to anyone

Identity theft can happen to anyone, just ask the Steamboat Springs public safety director.

During Thursday’s police community meeting, Public Safety Director J.D. Hays told a crowd of 20 that he had received a credit card charge six months ago for a $1,000 camera he never bought. Late one night, he got a call from his credit card company asking about the purchase of the camera, which occurred in Jefferson County.

Hays doesn’t know how the thieves got his credit card information. The FBI is continuing to work on the case, which is connected to a crime ring in Russia.

“Everybody is vulnerable, you just have to be careful,” Hays said.

Hays said he now has a paper shredder for all the personal documents he throws away.

Every few months, the Steamboat Springs Police Dep-artment sponsors community meetings, focusing on a different topic each session. On Thursday night, the police department gave advice about how to take precautions against identity theft. Police Officer Dwight Murphy also talked about his experiences in Iraq.

Police Detective Ross Kelly said using common sense and vigilance could prevent ID theft and fraud.

Identity theft is when someone uses another person’s personal information to obtain credit, services, make purchases, cash checks or apply and receive loans in the victim’s name.

In most cases, the thieves need only three pieces of information: a name, date of birth and Social Security number. With that information, they can take out loans, apply for additional credit cards, open phone or utility accounts, establish bank accounts and write bad checks.

It is the fastest-growing crime in America, costing the average victim $1,800 and 300 hours.

“It is really replacing the street thieves you used to see around the drug circles,” Kelly said. “It’s less work, very easy to do and very lucrative.”

He said the easiest way to know whether someone is using your banking or credit card account is to check the accounts online. Online banking is usually safe and makes it easy for people to monitor.

“If you don’t get a chance to see what happens to your account until your monthly statements, these people are long gone,” Kelly said.

He also warned that all people need is an account number to write a fake check and access someone else’s bank account.

A video the police department showed also highlighted four ways to protect against ID theft.

Law enforcement officers advised people to deposit all of their mail with valuable information, such as bills, into a marked postal box. Thieves often acquire mail and the information needed for ID theft through residential mailboxes.

“A flag up tells the thief it’s a good time to come by and pick up outgoing checks,” Kelly said.

Secondly, people should shred all unwanted credit card applications or other documents that thieves could use to obtain credit cards, checks or loans.

People also should order copies of their credit reports to see whether new credit card accounts have been opened in their names without their knowledge. It also allows people to remember to close accounts they forgot they had open, which sometimes can be taken over by thieves.

And finally, people should limit the amount of personal information they give out on the phone or online.

As for fraud, Kelly warns people to take caution when an offer sounds too good to be true, because it usually is. He said people should avoid situations in which a stranger or what appears to be an official agency is willing to give the victim a percentage of money if the victim cashes a check and then sends back some of the funds.

In these cases, the check is a fraud, and the victim is left to cover the amount of money they sent back to the agencies or stranger.

He also warns about a new Internet scam in which criminals mimic the Web sites and e-mail messages of banks. The culprit will send out e-mails telling victims that personal information has been lost. The e-mails direct the victims to another site, which looks like the bank’s site, to submit their account numbers and pin numbers.

“These are especially difficult because they are close to the truth, they look like the truth, but they are going in a different direction,” Kelly said.

Kelly also advises people to report credit card theft immediately, increasing their chances of getting the money back.

For more information, go to the Web sites of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, http://www.ago.state.co.us, the Mountain State Better Business Bureau, http://www.rockymtn.bbb.org/business/index.asp, or the Federal Trade Commission, http://www.ftc.org.

— To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229 or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com