OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Identity theft is the top consumer complaint in Oklahoma, and fighting it begins with the consumer, law enforcement authorities said Monday.
“There is no perfect defense. But you try to do what you can to minimize your risk,” said U.S. Attorney John Richter of Oklahoma City.
During an 18-month period, central Oklahoma consumers reported more than $8 million in losses due to identity theft, federal, state and local law enforcement officials said.
Oklahoma consumers made 2,254 identity theft-related complaints to the Federal Trade Commission last year, and officials said credit card fraud was the most common form of identity theft.
“Identity theft really tops the list of consumer complaints. It's devastating to the victims,” Richter said. “The first line of defense has to be the consumer.”
Mike Fithen, special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service in Oklahoma City, said greed fuels much of the identity theft his agency investigates. Drug and alcohol addiction and trying to maintain luxurious lifestyles also drives criminals to steal others' identities.
“If you have credit card fraud it usually goes hand in hand with counterfeit identifications,” Fithen said. “One feeds off the other.”
Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have formed the Oklahoma City Economic and Identity Crime Task Force to investigate and prosecute consumer-oriented crimes including identity theft.
Since it was formed in July 2005, the task force has made 185 arrests, 72 counterfeit check fraud cases, 40 identity theft cases, 15 credit card fraud cases and seven bank fraud cases. Thetask force has also seized more than $1.6 million from defendants.
This month alone, 11 defendants were indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiracy to make and pass counterfeit checks, part of an investigation called Operation Ice Age. In another investigation, dubbed Operation Copy Cat, five defendants were indicted for conspiracy to make and pass counterfeit checks.
Authorities said their focus on the problem is having an impact. At the end of 2005, the FTC said Oklahoma ranked 18th in the nation in the number of identify theft victims per 100,000 residents. At the end of last year, Oklahoma's rank had dropped to 23rd, Fithen said.
He said consumers should “make it tough on the criminals” by annually reviewing their credit report to determine if there have been unauthorized inquiries.
If a consumer sees something suspicious, Richter said, they should follow up with telephone calls to law enforcement and creditors.
Richter urged consumers to shred financial documents before they are discarded and to mail checks and personal financial information at a secure mail box or post office instead of leaving the information on residential mailboxes for the postman.
Richter said consumers should be cautious about who they are you doing business with and how, “so that your personal information is in fewer places.”