National Consumer Protection Week emphasizes privacy strategies

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles looking at recent trends in consumer fraud. Feb. 5-11 is Consumer Protection Week.

Something as routine as raising the red flag on a rural mailbox raises a red flag of alarm for officials helping people protect themselves from identity theft, one of the fastest growing crimes in the country.

Twila Gregg, president and chief executive officer of Bank21, used the mailbox analogy in a presentation at the Marshall Senior Center Jan. 31. She said the image helps illustrate what makes consumers vulnerable to theft and fraud.

The red flag on mailboxes, she said, tells ID thieves "Hey, there's information in here." Thieves take advantage of people doing commonplace things, things they assume are safe.

"You can't totally protect yourself. Every time you write a check you are providing information that can be used," she said. "What you can do is limit your exposure."

The first step is to become habitually skeptical of any unsolicited requests for information or for any deal that is too good to be true.

A common practice among identity thieves is to go "fishing," or calling people on the phone attempting to gather useful information, including account numbers, personal identification numbers (PINs) or passwords.

Whether the request for information comes by phone or letter or e-mail, it is likely to look or sound official. Correspondence may even display the company's logo.

Beth Vasquez, assistant manager of Bank Midwest in Marshall, said banks and businesses have records of your accounts.

"There's no reason for your bank to call or e-mail for your information," she said. "The bank is never going to do that."

Another tactic scam artists may use is to play one spouse against another. Dale Zank of State Farm bank and insurance in Marshall said he recently received a call from someone who claimed to be from a credit card company assuring him that his wife had requested the call.

Zank knew better and challenged the caller, who immediately hung up.

"Had I given him the last four digits of my card and any other information they would have had all they needed," he said. People should be sure they know who they are talking to, and the best way to be sure is to provide information only to someone they have called, not someone who has called them.

People should even be careful about giving information to family and friends, Gregg said. Fifty-one percent of identity theft victims know the person who exploited their information, she said.

Contact Eric Crump at

marshallfaith@socket.net

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