Members of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce learned a few things that surprised them during the monthly meeting held March 22. Speaking to the group was Argina Layne, consumer advocate with the Office of the Attorney General.
Layne started off her presentation by giving a pop quiz to attendees asking a variety of questions about credit reports, purchasing online and giving out personal information. The answers to the questions and their explanations caught some off guard.
Layne told the group that in West Virginia alone, there were more than 14,000 complaints made to the Attorney General's office.
"Everyone's information is out there somewhere," Layne said. "Even with the best safeguards, there are still leaks."
Layne did provide information to help one be less likely to be a victim of abuse or false information. The first question she asked was with regard to each person's right to their credit report. While each person is entitled to a free copy of their report, Layne advised not to get copies of each from the three credit bureaus at the same time. She said it is best to print one of the three, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian, so that later in the same year, an individual can print a second copy to confirm that any discrepancies have been removed. Otherwise, she said, one must wait a full year for another free copy.
To receive copies, visit or call 1-877-322-8228. She jokingly said that an advertisement that claims free credit reports is never free.
She advised that to opt out of pre-approved credit offers, one must only visit www.optoutprescreen.com or call 1-800-5OPTOUT. Sending individual offers back asking to be removed from their lists is an ineffective way to handle the receipt of such offers.
Layne warned repeatedly about giving personal information over the telephone. While it is sometimes necessary to provide social security numbers or other private information, she cautioned that the information should never be shared with someone who has called in. Instead, individuals should call their banks, etc. to make sure the person getting the information is the correct one.
"Never give personal information to anyone via phone or email unless you initiate the contact with a company and know it's legitimate," she said.
An individual should never simply cut up a credit card and assume it is not going to be used, Layne shared.
"You need to call that card company and verify that the account has been closed. Otherwise, if someone charges on that account, you are responsible for the purchases," she said.
While federal law limits the amount of liability on lost or stolen credit cards, Layne educated the attendees that this coverage is not forever. One must report a card stolen or missing and if done, they are only responsible for $50 in the first two days of reporting. From three to 60 days, that amount jumps to $500 and after that time, if the card is not reported missing or stolen, the cardholder could be responsible for the full charges on any given card.
Layne advised never to put a debit card, even if it is used as a credit card, in the folder at a restaurant to pay the bill. One can simply copy the card information, numbers, security code and expiration, and use the card to charge any number of items. That, she said, is a good reason to check online banking to monitor account usage. Report any unauthorized spending immediately so that the card number can be checked and changed if necessary.
In addition to copying information from a debit card as indicated, there are now electronic palm readers which allow criminals to simply walk past and scan information from the magnetic strip of a credit or bank card. Aluminum sleeves are available for purchase to protect the cards from such scanning activity.
One can never be too careful when protecting oneself from identity theft and fraud. Layne stressed that one should never carry their social security card with them unless they are going to a place that specifically needs to see it.
"Consider your social security number like it is $20,000 in cash," she said. "The fewer cards and documents you carry, the better," she said. "Identity theft often happens as a result of wallet and purse theft."
She did point out, too, that the mailbox or mail slot is the biggest opportunity for information to be stolen.
With the increased number of cases in West Virginia, especially the Eastern Panhandle, the Office of the Attorney General will open a branch office in Martinsburg within the next week. The office will be located at 269 Aikens Center, near Valley College of Technology.
The establishment of the Martinsburg office, according to the Attorney General's recent newsletter, will allow local, personalized access to consumer protection resources for residents in the Eastern Panhandle, making it easier for them to get direct help from consumer advocates.
Layne indicated that the office can direct questions to other state agencies if the consumer protection advocates cannot assist individuals.