SAIL group learns more about identity theft
A representative from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office was present Friday at SAIL’s (Shepherdstown Area Independent Living) monthly brown bag luncheon to discuss the growing crime of identity theft and how to prevent it.
Kanette Petry said her office, the Eastern Panhandle Consumer Protection Office located at 269 Aikens Center in Martinsburg, gets many calls each year from people who have been victims of scams where they have lost money, or have had their identities stolen.
Petry said that it’s very difficult to retrieve money or property that has been sent to thieves. Scammers are good at not revealing who they are or where they are located. She said even banks can’t even disclose information about where money has gone after it’s been wired to someone, because the information just isn’t available.
The Consumer Protection Office works with many other government agencies like the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, U.S. Postal Service and the IRS to obtain information about scammers and identity thieves.
“One of the scams that’s coming back around to my area (Petry is responsible for several counties in the panhandle of West Virginia, including Berkeley, Morgan and Jefferson) is called the ‘grandparent’ scam,” said Petry. “It’s called that because not only does it happen to grandparents, but also because of the way that you’re contacted. We’re finding they are doing this not only by phone, but also on the internet. What happens is that your phone will ring or you will get an email that says, ‘Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt, Uncle, I am in jail and I need some funds to bail me out.’ Or ‘I’ve been in a car accident and I need money to pay for damages’. Or, ‘I’m traveling and someone stole my wallet or passport and I need money to replace it.'”
Petry said these types of scams are always looking for information or money, and scammers are quite adept at using the internet to get just enough information about a victim to make it seem legitimate.
“With social media today, these callers will know your relative’s names, where they live or where they may have been recently. They may even know what other people in your family call you. If you have never put your own name and town into a Google search engine, please do that. You will be surprised at what comes up. Many search results will have your name, address and phone number.”
Petry continued saying, “These scammers tend to hit regions of a state. What they’ll do is pull up an area map, find people’s names, put that into their search engines and get all kinds of information about you. They know enough information to call or contact you at a time when you’re not expecting it. Even if you ask them a couple of questions, they could probably answer you.”
Several scammers will call under the guise of being from the Social Security office, the IRS or financial institution requesting social security information or money, using a sense of urgency such as back taxes that need to be paid immediately or their will be legal action taken.
Petry said a genuine government agency will not call to request that type of personal information. They will always contact via letter, and she advises that people call and check to make sure the letter is legitimate. However, a person must make sure they are contacting the actual social security office, IRS office, etc., and not just relying on the phone number provided on the letter. Caution is key.
Other ways that thieves steal identity is not just by stealing wallets or purses, but also by stealing utility bills, credit card offers, or scanning your credit cards with special machines or even phone apps at the gas pumps or grocery stores.
Tips to avoid identity theft are to be mindful of mail that is thrown away. Thieves will rummage through trash looking for personal information. Make sure to shred mail, especially financial statements and anything that contains social security information.
Check credit reports annually at annualcreditreport.com to make sure there have not been credit accounts opened fraudulently.
Instruct companies not to share personal information. Consumers should not assume that companies will automatically keep personal information from non-affiliated third parties.
Make sure to register with the national Do Not Call Registry, which can be reached at 1-888-382-1222. Also, opt-out of pre-screened credit card offers by calling 1-888-567-8688.
It’s important to store all personal information in a safe and secure place, and not to use obvious passwords on your computer or electronic devices, as well as making sure the computer has adequate firewalls, anti-virus and anti-spyware software.
Petry urges anyone to call who thinks they have been contacted by a scam artist so that they can give that information to other agencies.
“If anyone needs to talk to someone about an issue that is cosumer-related, or a state resource issue contact the Martinsburg office for information and direction as to how to proceed.
“We hope to be an advocate for West Virginia citizens to help them navigate what can sometimes be a very thick, and time consuming bureaucracy, said Petry.”