Our View: Don’t be the next victim
February 27, 2008
Steamboat Springs — Last week’s arrest of two longtime Routt County residents suspected of embezzling $1.2 million from Alpine Bank customers has shocked our community, and rightly so. It very well could be the largest theft of its kind in the history of Steamboat Springs.
But regardless of the outcome of any potential criminal case against Terri Dawn Moody Fatka and Pamela Jean Williams, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty, the alleged embezzlement of $1.2 million from five account holders at a local bank serves as an important reminder about financial accounting practices for all residents and businesses.
We can hardly blame the individual victims; many of us simply skim over – or worse yet, ignore – the bank statements sent to us each month by our financial institutions. Many of us also forgo balancing our checkbooks on a regular basis.
Such apathy usually goes unpunished, but incidents such as this bring cause for more careful inspection of how we handle our personal and business finances.
The Internet has made it easier for consumers to keep up with their finances on a continual basis. Most banks now provide free online banking for their customers, but it’s a resource that must be tapped in order to be useful.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t check their statement very carefully,” said Steamboat Springs resident Rob Douglas, a former private investigator who now works with the financial services industry to prevent theft inside and out. “There is study after study that shows that those of us who are fanatical about banking online and checking our statements online are the least likely to be victimized, and the most likely to catch it.”
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Any mistakes or suspicious activity must be reported to your creditor within 60 days in order to be subject to the Fair Credit Billing Act and Electronic Fund Transfers Act, which establish procedures for resolving mistakes on credit account and bank account statements. The correct reporting procedure includes sending a written statement including your name and account number, a statement that you think the bill contains an error and the amount of money involved, and the reason you believe there is a mistake. More information is available at http://www.fdic.gov.
The embezzlement investigation also raises important reminders relative to business practices and oversight beyond the banking industry. Retail losses accounted for $41.6 billion in 2006, according to the National Retail Security Survey. Almost half of the losses, or $19.5 billion, was the result of employee theft. Administrative error ($5.8 billion) and vendor fraud ($1.7 billion) also were major contributors.
Employee theft and administrative error occurs at businesses small and large. The net effect can be particularly devastating for small businesses, which dominate the landscape in Northwest Colorado. Sound accounting practices and diligent oversight from business owners can go a long way toward preventing such losses.
Not to be overlooked is the increasing rate of identity theft locally and beyond. The Steamboat Springs Police Department handled more cases of identity theft in 2007 than in any previous year. The department investigated an additional 42 cases of fraud, many of which involved credit cards. Social Security numbers, bank account information and credit card numbers provide easy avenues for identity thieves. Steps for decreasing your risk of identity theft include: shredding all documents containing personal and financial information, including credit card solicitations; protecting your Social Security number – never carry your Social Security card in your wallet or purse; refusing to provide personal information via telephone or e-mail; and keeping personal information in a secure place in your home.
The bottom line is this: thieves always will find ways to victimize the innocent, but there are a number of steps each of us can take to prevent our names from being next on the list.