Shelly Schultz

The News-Record

For many families, the annual income tax refund is much anticipated and provides the opportunity to catch up on bills or buy things they can’t otherwise afford.

Eager to get her own return, a Miami woman recently went to a local tax preparer only to learn her taxes had already been filed.

Someone had the information – names, dates of birth, social security numbers – of not only her but also her children.

After a brief investigation, Miami detectives learned that this woman was among many throughout the nation whose income tax had been fraudulently filed.

How often does it happen?

Since March 1, Oklahoma has already had 3 data breaches. One with the City of Muskogee another was Western State College and the most recent data breach with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

According to the FTC report for 2008 identity theft alone in Oklahoma increased 16.61%. Government documents and benefits for the State of Oklahoma increased 39.93%.

On March 5, about 50 identities were exposed when a laptop was stolen from a housing inspector with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The names, social security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and phone numbers of people who applied for flood assistance was on the laptop.

On March 3, about 1,500 identities were exposed when hackers got into the Western Oklahoma State College library system. The names, social security numbers and other personal information of campus library users dating back to 2004 were exposed.

On March 1, officials for the City of Muskogee discovered a possible breach of utility billing information on accounts that were closed prior to August of 2000. The disk contained the names, social security numbers and other personal information of about 4,500 utility customers.

How do thieves steal an identity?

Identity theft starts with the misuse of your personally identifying information such as your name and Social Security number, credit card numbers, or other financial account information. For identity thieves, this information is as good as gold.

Skilled identity thieves may use a variety of methods to get hold of your information, including:

Dumpster diving. They rummage through trash looking for bills or other paper with your personal information on it.

Skimming. They steal credit/debit card numbers by using a special storage device when processing your card.

Phishing. They pretend to be financial institutions or companies and send spam or pop-up messages to get you to reveal your personal information.

Changing your address. They divert your billing statements to another location by completing a change of address form.

Old-fashioned stealing. They steal wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; and new checks or tax information. They steal personnel records, or bribe employees who have access.

Pretexting.  They use false pretenses to obtain your personal information from financial institutions, telephone companies and other sources.  For more information about pretexting, click here.

Identity theft is a serious crime. It occurs when personal information is stolen and used without knowledge to commit fraud or other crimes. Identity theft can cost time and money. It can destroy credit and ruin a good name.

Deter identity thieves by safeguarding your information.

Shred financial documents and paperwork with personal information before you discard them.

Protect your Social Security number. Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet or write your Social Security number on a check. Give it out only if absolutely necessary or ask to use another identifier.

Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you know who you are dealing with.

Never click on links sent in unsolicited emails; instead, type in a web address you know. Use firewalls, anti-spyware, and anti-virus software to protect your home computer; keep them up-to-date. Visit OnGuardOnline.gov for more information.

Don't use an obvious password like your birth date, your mother's maiden name, or the last four digits of your Social Security number.

Keep your personal information in a secure place at home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having work done in your house.

Detect suspicious activity by routinely monitoring your financial accounts and billing statements.

Be alert to signs that require immediate attention:

Bills that do not arrive as expected

Unexpected credit cards or account statements

Denials of credit for no apparent reason

Calls or letters about purchases you did not make

Inspect:

Your credit report. Credit reports contain information about you, including what accounts you have and your bill paying history.

The law requires the major nationwide consumer reporting companies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—to give you a free copy of your credit report each year if you ask for it.

Visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com or call 1-877-322-8228, a service created by these three companies, to order your free credit reports each year. Your financial statements. Review financial accounts and billing statements regularly, looking for charges you did not make.

Defend against ID theft as soon as it’s suspected.

Place a "Fraud Alert" on credit reports, and review the reports carefully. The alert tells creditors to follow certain procedures before they open new accounts in your name or make changes to your existing accounts. The three nationwide consumer-reporting companies have toll-free numbers for placing an initial 90-day fraud alert; a call to one company is sufficient:

Equifax: 1-800-525-6285

Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)

TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289

Placing a fraud alert entitles you to free copies of your credit reports. Look for inquiries from companies you haven't contacted, accounts you didn't open, and debts on your accounts that you can't explain.

Close accounts. Close any accounts that have been tampered with or established fraudulently.

Call the security or fraud departments of each company where an account was opened or changed without your okay. Follow up in writing, with copies of supporting documents.

Use the ID Theft Affidavit at ftc.gov/idtheft to support your written statement.

Ask for verification that the disputed account has been closed and the fraudulent debts discharged.

Keep copies of documents and records of your conversations about the theft.

File a police report. File a report with law enforcement officials to help you with creditors who may want proof of the crime.

Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission. Your report helps law enforcement officials across the country in their investigations.