CUMBERLAND — Last week, a LaVale woman arrived home from her vacation in Virginia Beach, Va., to find charges on her credit card from ITunes. She did some further research and discovered other charges from a bank overseas. Somewhere, on her otherwise restful vacation, a thief had stolen her credit card number and made fraudulent charges. The local woman became the latest victim of identity theft. It happened that quickly.
“And that woman was me,” said Desiree Growden, the coordinator of the local Communities Against Senior Exploitation program. A national effort, CASE was launched in 2002 in Denver and introduced to Allegany County through the local state’s attorney’s office in 2009. Growden said the intent of the CASE program is to educate people on the dangers of identity theft.
Growden spoke Monday afternoon to a group of 25 members of the Allegany County Association for Family and Community Education — formerly the Homemakers Club.
“I had heard Desiree speak at another workshop and I thought her information would be very interesting for our group to hear,” said Lessie Spates, the group’s current president. “It’s very important information.”
CASE is a partnership be-tween the Allegany County State’s Attorney Office and county law enforcement. It is not funded through any public money but instead is funded through fines, collected money and sold confiscated property from convicted drug dealers.
Growden’s job is to conduct seminars and to later investigate cases of local identity theft and fraud.
“Identity thieves will literally go through your trash,” Growden said during Monday’s presentation at the Allegany County Fairgrounds. “They will look for canceled checks, try to read numbers on shredded credit cards, impersonate your bank, offer assistance at an ATM machine when it seems you can’t get money out, they will call you at home and make something seem like it’s an emergency to get personal information. The next thing you know, your identity is stolen.”
Identity theft is big and serious business. It happens when someone steals another’s personal information such as name, credit card information and even Social Security numbers for personal gain, usually for money. Often, the victim of identity theft does not know he or she has been victimized until the theft shows up on a credit card or bank statement.
It is estimated that as many as 15 million Americans have their identities stolen each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. One local credit union member, for instance, two years ago only discovered she was a victim of identity theft when a collection agency called and told her she owed $800 for cell phone charges. But the woman didn’t own a cell phone. The collection agency didn’t believe her and insisted the charges be paid.
In another instance, it took nearly a year for an area resident to trace charges he did not make for a rental car company in Indiana.
Banks especially are vulnerable places with many unscrupulous individuals simply using the letterhead of a bank, credit union or mortgage company to send out mail or e-mails in an effort to get personal information.
“I received an urgent phone call from someone saying he was from a local credit union and told me to call back right away to straighten out information with my account,” said Growden. “But I don’t do business with that credit union so I knew it was fraudulent. But how many people would call back and give up that information?”
Growden said identity thieves rely on a person’s good naturedness and when that fails, they create a false panic.
“We’ve all been told by Mom not to talk to strangers and that’s true,” she said. “Just say no thanks, you don’t need the help.”
Growden said often even what may seem like an innocent sweepstakes contest can end up in identity theft to the unsuspecting.
“What happens is your information gets sold to people who buy mailing lists,” she said. “Next thing you know someone is calling you up and telling you have won a contest you didn’t even enter. You’ve become part of a sucker list. Don’t feel bad when you have to hang up on telemarketers ...”
Growden said identity thieves do not just target credit cards. With the right personal information — like Social Security numbers— a thief can open a line of credit, apply for and get a job, and in some cases even buy real estate fraudulently.
Allegany County State’s Attorney Michael Twigg has established a local fraud and identity theft hot line at 301-876-9083. Those thinking they have been victims or those who want to report any suspected claims are encouraged to call. The office also sends e-mail alerts to those who sign up for them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Growden said as soon as an investigation claims to be positive for potential theft an e-mail is immediately sent to warn others.
Up to 20 “identity theft awareness” workshops like the one held Monday are conducted by Growden and Twigg throughout the year through the CASE program. Most of them are geared toward those over the age of 55.
“But anyone can be a victim, at any age,” said Growden. “The advice is not just for seniors. There are people out there just waiting to take advantage of you and when it happens, it can be terrible thing. And it happens more often than you think, even right here in good old Allegany County.”
Contact Shane Riggs at email@example.com.