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Protecting yourself from ID theft

Photo by Karen Zautyk
Nutley Mayor Alphonse Petracco addresses Neighborhood Watch meeting at
Town Hall.

 

By Karen Zautyk 

Observer Correspondent 

NUTLEY – 

Last week, we reported on a recent Neighborhood Watch meeting focusing on various scams — and we put the spotlight on the information about unscrupulous homerepair “contractors.” This week, as promised, we’re reporting on other vital info that was provided, this about higher-tech fraud, the kind in which the scamsters utilize phones, ATMs, email, etc., to separate you from your money.

In some cases, it’s a one-shot deal, an attempt to get a lumpsum payment by fraudulent means. In others, the criminals are engaged in identity theft, designed to drain your credit and your bank accounts.

At the meeting, held April 24 at Town Hall under the auspices of the Nutley Police Department, Det. Tom Perrota covered a multitude of topics, part of the effort to circulate the warnings throughout the township via Neighborhood Watch members. “We want you to spread the word to your friends and neighbors,” Perrota said. “We need to get the information out and let everyone know what to look out for.”

Mayor Alphonse Petracco introduced the program and admitted that he had been a victim. “One day I’m in my deli,” he said, “and I get a call from one of my credit-card companies, asking, ‘Are you at Nordstrom’s in Chicago?’” It turned out that someone had used his card info at that store to buy $800 worth of gift cards.

The mayor urged all to monitor their credit cards and to “cancel the ones that you don’t use.”

“Identity theft,” Perrota noted, “is an increasing epidemic in the United States.” He cited a Federal Trade Commission report showing $15.6 billion in estimated losses from ID theft in 2006, and added, “I guarantee it’s double that today.”

The scamsters are looking for any personal info — names, addresses, Social Security numbers (do NOT carry your SocSec card around with you; leave it in a secure place at home), mortgage info, etc. With the last, he noted, “they’ll take out a second mortgage in your name.”

To protect yourself, Perrota urged that, for starters, you register at freecreditreport.com, where you can get a copy of your report and begin to monitor it.

Other advice:

• Protect your mailbox.  “Get a locked one,” Perrota said. “All they [ID thieves] need is one bill” with your info on it. If you don’t get any mail for a couple of days, go to the Post Office and demand to know where it is. • Shred any discarded  paperwork with personal info.

• Be aware of your  surroundings when using an ATM. Cover the keyboard and your hand when entering your password. If you regularly use the same ATM, know what it looks like. If anything looks different, do not use it; go to the counter. ID thieves place tiny cameras and card “skimmers” on the machines to steal your info.

• Review all your bills and  credit-card statements. Check for double charges or charges made via phone. • If you are getting a  new computer, do not simply discard the old one. DESTROY it and the hard  drive. Smash it!

• Do not give out personal information. For example,  when applying for a store credit card, do not provide your Social Security number. (It’s a good idea NEVER to  provide that number unless you absolutely have to.) Do not fill out personal info on warranty cards, sweepstakes entries, etc.

Unfortunately, these days all these precautions are no guarantee your info will be safe. Perrota noted there have been cases where ID thieves have hired conspirators who then get themselves hired as receptionists and such at medical offices, where they are privy to all manner of personal and financial information. “This is why you need to regularly check your credit records and bank accounts,” Perrota warned.

If all this is not enough to cause worry, consider the phone scams.

Recently the IRS issued a  nationwide warning about fraudsters pretending to be IRS agents calling people and  seeking immediate payment of alleged back taxes and/or  fines. In New Jersey, a similar scam involved calls from “sheriff’s officers” demanding payment of a fine for “missing jury duty.”

There are many other similar frauds out there. Sometimes the callers ask for a credit card number. Sometimes they want payment via a prepaid debit/money  card, money order, wire transfer, etc.

These con artists are technically sophisticated. They can disguise their phone number so that your Caller ID indicates the call is, indeed, coming from the IRS or the  sheriff’s office or whatever entity they claim to represent. And sometimes, they even have the last four digits of your Social Security number, the better to make you think they are legit.

Another popular phone scam, often made to a senior citizen, involves a call reporting that the person’s grandchild, or some other relative or friend, has been arrested somewhere and needs bail money, or has been in an accident or has had their wallet stolen and needs cash now.

These scamsters are even using Facebook and other social media sites to gather info on the relative/friend to make the call sound legitimate. Consider: If someone pretending to be your grandson’s friend knows what kind of car he drives or the name of his dog, you’d likely believe the phony story, wouldn’t you?

If you ever get a call like this, Perrota said, “before you do anything, verify!” Call the family and find out if the relative/ friend is indeed in trouble somewhere. Also call your local police. They can contact the supposed jurisdiction and find out if there really has been an arrest or accident.

As for email fraud, this, too, is increasing. Best advice we’ve ever been given: Don’t open emails from a sender you don’t know. And don’t EVER click on a link or attachment in a suspect email.

The email con artists are able to duplicate legitmate websites, so do not rely on appearances. If you get an email supposedly from your bank or utility company or credit-card company, etc., avoid any opening any link/ attachment. If you want to confirm the mail’s legitimacy, do not simply hit “reply” and do not call any number provided in the email; instead, call the company using a verified number from one of your printed bills or statements.

Bottom line and best line of defense in all these scams is (we can’t say it often enough): Safeguard your personal information.

As Perrota said: “Lock down your information like it’s gold. A thief doesn’t have to enter your house to take everything you have.”

The Nutley PD has a free reference guide full of valuable advice on preventing identity theft and what to do if you ever become a victim. For a copy, call 973-284-4947.

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