‘Overwhelming’ task of fighting ID theft, fraud

‘Overwhelming’ task of fighting ID theft, fraud

With more and more reports of Southeast Texans doubling as victims of scams, and identity theft and manipulation, area agencies are taking the offensive – targeting scammers and thieves for prosecution, and assisting victims caught up in their webs.

Consumer beware

As the adage alludes, whenever you build a better mousetrap, inevitably someone will engineer a smarter mouse. And, in that spirit of good old American ingenuity, even con artists take part. Scammers are always tweaking their trade, and thousands fall victim to the charade annually.

As highlighted in the pages of The Examiner this month, a new flavor of scam has run rampant throughout the Golden Triangle this summer, with hundreds of elderly and disabled victims targeted by a group offering to help the Social Security and SSI recipients get access to a much-needed stimulus rebate – although no such rebate exists. Instead, the ploy was just a ruse to access victims’ valuable information such as their driver’s license, Social Security number and banking information. Falsified tax returns were then submitted in the victims’ names, claiming non-existent dependents and work history, with those taken in by the scam none the wiser.

Citizen complaints lodged at the Better Business Bureau of Southeast Texas, the IRS and police departments and banks throughout the region revealed the extent of the operation that has touched parts of Texas from Beaumont to Houston to Dallas, and beyond. But according to BBB dispute resolution director Jay Sheppard, although this scam is the latest threat to Southeast Texans, it is in no way the first – nor will it be the last.

Sheppard points to a laundry list of scams perpetrated in recent months – the “grandparent” scam, home renovation scams, investment schemes, online dating cons, money order scams, identity manipulation, scams preying specifically on college-age students, and more. The BBB has compiled a list of the top scams, which includes the aforementioned with more always added at bbb.org/scam. Even the BBB was a quasi-victim of scammers this past week, with e-mailings sent under the guise of being from the consumer advocacy agency in an attempt to defraud BBB clients.

“Consumers need to be proactive in protecting themselves,” Sheppard said. “The recent situation involving Southeast Texans that were victimized by the promise of stimulus refund has shed light on the importance of protecting your personal information.”In fact, according to a 2012 report compiled by federally funded ID Analytics, Beaumont leads the nation in per-capita identity-manipulation attempts, and the Beaumont Police Department has reported the city is plagued with identity-theft-related crimes, according to Detective JoAnn Jacobs of the Property Division in Criminal Investigations.

“Identity theft is a broad problem – they’ll steal your information, your stuff off the Internet, anything they can get their hands on,” Jacobs said. Her job is only made harder since agencies like the IRS refrain from sharing information with local investigators.“We’re not able to get the Social Security numbers and such, so the IRS investigates all that. … The IRS doesn’t give us this information,” she said. The Beaumont IRS office is currently open only six days a month with limited hours and operations, but Jacobs said new cases are brought to BPD on a regular basis claiming IRS identity theft. BBB’s Sheppard said she, too, found it hard getting in contact with local IRS representatives, but in her search to get relief for local victims, was able to acquire a contact for those who feel they have been victimized by IRS-related fraud.

Where to go from here

“The federal government is facing a future of increasing abuse and misuse of the tax system through tax fraud, identify theft, and other uses of taxpayer information for illegal gains. In addition to scope and volume are increases in complexity and sophistication of schemes,” the annual Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee report to Congress surmised this summer. “(The) IRS is acutely aware of the issue and making great strides to develop fraud detection and prevention systems.”Additional information from the IRS contends roughly half a million citizens have been victims of tax-related fraud this year alone. Still, with budget cuts taking their toll on the government agency, fewer employees are at the helm to take complaints and perform investigations. Sheppard, whose office worked tirelessly to identify bogus stimulus purveyors targeting the area, said victims are not alone in this predicament, and it is her hope that through communication and outreach efforts, no one else will succumb to the predators.

Sheppard said anyone who feels they might have been a victim of tax-related fraud should contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at (800) 908-4490 and fill out an Identity Theft Affidavit.

“When I called the number, I was provided assistance within two minutes and the IRS representative provided his ID number prior to assisting me,” she said. Sheppard also advises victims to call their local police department.

Additionally, she said, “Although it is impossible to guarantee that identity theft will never happen to you, taking precautions will help in reducing your chances of becoming a victim.”

Sheppard recommends never responding to calls or e-mails requesting to “verify” personal information and identifiers; protecting Social Security numbers, all account numbers and passwords, and not carrying the numbers in your wallet; shredding sensitive information rather than just tossing it in the trash; monitoring bank and credit card details for unauthorized transactions; checking out businesses before working with them via bbb.org; and checking credit reports annually for free by calling (877) 322-8228 or visiting www.AnnualCreditReport.com.

If the worst does happen, she said, the most important thing to do when discovering identity fraud is to take action right away, filing a report with local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. The BBB, through the bbb.org Web site and live representatives available at the Beaumont office by calling (409) 835- 5951, is also available to help citizens from becoming victims of fraud and assisting those who need direction on how to proceed with taking action should their personal information become compromised. As part of the agency’s outreach, groups can have BBB representatives speak on topics such as identity theft by contacting the BBB Consumer Education department at (409) 835-5348; and the BBB hosts periodic “Shred It & Forget It” events, the next being held Saturday, Sept. 15, from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., at Kaplan College behind Parkdale Mall in Beaumont.