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DFI secretary talks to residents about identity crimes

An alarming 53 million Americans claimed to be victims of fraud and identity theft last year, racking up an annual bill of $570 million in Wisconsin alone.

In response, Gov. Jim Doyle has directed state officials to take action.

That action is both informational and local. State Department of Financial Institutions Cabinet Secretary Lorrie Keating Heinemann was at the Riverview Manor apartment complex in River Falls last Thursday to discuss the topic with residents.

A small turnout changed the atmosphere from a planned presentation to a roundtable discussion, and Heinemann was able to address the specific concerns of the two women in attendance. Both reported frustrations with phone calls and mail from credit card companies.

Heinemann spoke about current schemes and case studies of fraud and identity theft, and advised on how people can protect themselves and their loved ones from these crimes.

She said one of the most common scams today involves getting a phone call from someone who says they've lost bank information and needs account numbers.

State Rep. Kitty Rhoades, who attended the meeting, offered her own tactic to dealing with telemarketers by saying, "I'm sorry, I can't talk to you. I don't have a phone."

Another frequent scam includes receiving a letter that claims an individual has won the lottery or a prize and must send a personal check to the organization to obtain the winnings.

"Unfortunately, if you give out your account numbers, you are liable," Heinemann said. And a check code can be easily duplicated with today's technology to create counterfeit checks.

An Internet scam, "phishing," has preyed on Web users by telling a person that their account information has been stolen and account numbers need to be retrieved. Heinemann warns people not to buy into these claims.

"If it sounds too good to be true - like you can double your money in six weeks - it is too good to be true," she said. "And don't hesitate to check with the state to see if they're licensed."

River Falls Police Investigator John Wilson said identity theft has been a huge problem locally the last few years. The situation is getting worse.

"It's getting to the point where it's almost like a full-time job working with the identity stuff," he said, adding that extra work for police officers includes looking through surveillance tapes and following up with credit card companies.

A tri-county investigators association has been set up in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota to more easily pass along information about suspects and their scams.

Wilson suggests taking the date of birth and driver's license number off checks, being cautious with purses and wallets, and not leaving personal items in the trash. He also said to hang up on suspicious callers and ask them to send any information in the mail.

While the elderly are often victimized, Wilson said identity crimes affect all ages and are often linked to the growing methamphetamine problem in the area.

Though identity crimes are on the rise, Heinemann also offered many measures that can be taken to protect oneself.

Foremost, she said, don't give full names, birthdates and Social Security numbers to anyone. That information is often all that is needed to access credit reports and other personal information.

People can freeze their credit reports, Heinemann said, adding that no one would be able to access credit information without direct consent of the individual when an account freeze is in effect. Contact a credit-reporting agency to take this action.

Wisconsin also has a no call list, which is supported by "a strong law with big penalties if a company continues to call," Heinemann said. People can sign up by calling 1-866-9NO-CALL, and telemarketing will decrease.

In general, Heinemann suggests ignoring suspicious mail and phone calls, and leaving scam mail for postal carriers to pick back up so a pattern can be identified. And above all else, she said, be careful not to leave checks and deposit slips out in public.

If you have a fraud complaint, please contact the DFI Office of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-452-3328 or the OPP at 1-800-422-7128. More information can also be found at