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PAULA M. FELIPE /MERCURY-REGISTER D.A. Investigator Jos Van Hout, from left, and Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey teach local residents about the crimes of identity theft and fraud during a recent symposium at the Gold County Casino, Thursday.
About 50 people attended the Butte County District Attorney's free symposium on fraud and identity theft in the conference room at Gold Country Casino, Thursday.

The D.A.'s Office and County of Butte Indian Gaming Local Benefit Committee sponsored the event.

This free community service was designed to raise awareness and teach people how to protect themselves. Fake checks, credit card fraud, telemarketing and lottery frauds, and Internet fraud are on the rise.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and D.A. Investigator Jos Van Hout provided presentations on many different kinds of fraud, such as those involving online auctions; general merchandise; Nigerian money offers; fake checks; lotteries; Phishing; info/adult services; advance fee loans; work at home plans, and Internet access services.

"Frauds mutate like a virus," Van Hout said.

"It's scary stuff," said an audience member after watching a CNN report on how a bank had to pay out $12 million dollars to customers who were victims of identity theft and check fraud.

This crime included 30 conspirators and two football players, who pled guilty and received 14 years in prison.

"It's a whole new way to rob a bank," Van Hout said. "And, don't think it's


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the bank that's the only victim. Your rates will increase. With those losses, you'll eventually pay for it."

"We need to educate the public how to safeguard information, and those committing frauds aren't just going through your trash and stealing your mail. Now, they are also planting key people in jobs working for companies in order to get to that information," Van Hout said.

Some "must know tips" on preventing fraud:

• Refuse to give out personal information to anyone who calls you on the phone or sends you an e-mail.

"Hang up and then you make the initial contact. If they said a bank or a credit company wants to talk to you about a problem, then you hang up and call them yourself," Van Hout said. "That's a 'golden rule' that can prevent many frauds from happening."

• Protect your social security number, credit card, and bank cards. If you have any type of card at all that has your social security number on it, do not carry it around with you. Put it in a secure place.

• Watch out for shoulder surfers (people looking over your shoulder when at bank ATM machine.)

• Keep track of credit card receipts. The receipts should only show last five digits of card number.

• Protect your personal information.

• Write clearly on credit applications. Sometimes errors can result from incorrect information due to bad handwriting.

• Monitor credit card accounts carefully.

• Limit number of credit cards you carry.

• Get credit report once a year. Call 877-322-8228 to obtain free credit report. See www.consumer.gov/idtheft for more information.

• Never leave paid bills in your mailbox.

• When going out of town, have the post office hold your mail.

• A program that offers fraud protection on your credit card is not a good investment, Van Hout said, "You don't want to be giving more employees at a fraud protection business access to your personal information."

• Look for trust symbol that indicates a secure Web site on the Internet. Only order products on a secure Web site.

• Shred all financial and legal documents.

• When creating a password on the Internet, use a combination of letters and numbers instead of a common name.

• Do not click on any links on a suspect Web site. Click to get out of it, but do not click on any "yes" or "no" boxes that ask you a question.

• When paying with a credit card at a business, such as a restaurant, watch the employee swipe the card on the business skimmer to make sure the card doesn't get double swiped on a skimmer in his pocket.

You could also pay cash instead of using a card. "Or eat at home," an audience member remarked with a chuckle.

• Have a $500 limit on a credit card to be used for regular purchases like gas, food, dining out, or using on the Internet. Don't use a debit card for online purchases.

"Phishing" is a term that refers to the act of sending out scam e-mails and announcements that try to get you to look on their fakes Web sites and submit your personal information to them.

Some fake Web sites will ask for your 3-digit number on back of your credit card. "Don't ever give that out or your pin number," Van Hout said.

"Read what the URL address says on the bottom of the screen," Van Hout said. "For example, when we looked at this address, we find the server is in Korea even though the link says it is a U.S. bank."

Some fake Web sites have the ability to lock up your computer and start "sucking" information out of them, he added.

The following are examples of local frauds perpetrated on the public.

• Some scammers use fake credit card and debit machines, which are placed near gas pumps hoping people will swipe their card on them. And, some fraudsters install a tiny camera someplace nearby hoping to get a video of people punching in their PIN number.

A local ARCO station discovered a machine was installed near their gas pumps, and fraudsters were stealing people's card and PIN numbers and then creating fake cards and using them at a casino in Lincoln where they gambled money they took out of other people's bank accounts.

• One local scam involved a caller saying there was a bench warrant issued because the person who answered the phone failed to show up for jury duty. The caller wanted the person's social security number and address to verify the information.

"This was a scam. Hang up and call the local courthouse. Don't take their word for it. You find out for yourself," Ramsey said.

• Fake checks are being created with other people's account numbers on them. One scam artist created fake Butte County welfare checks suing stolen Photoshop software and a stolen deposit slip from someone else's account.

• Another local fraudster ordered a black wig and mustache at a beauty shop with a stolen credit card. Investigators got the tip and a search warrant and found the suspect had ordered bullet proof vests, handguns, long guns, and protective kevlar gear. "He is in prison now," Van Hout said.

• Telemarketing fraud. "If you have someone call you and say, 'Congratulations you just won the Canadian lottery,' and all you have to do is pay some fees to receiving the winnings, don't believe it. If it sounds too good to be true, it is!" Ramsey said.

"Hang up the phone," Ramsey emphasized. "To not hang up the phone is like allowing these burglars into your home."

"The sinister part is they prey on the elderly, who have good relationships with the bank because they have developed good reputations and are honest. And with the older generation, they remember when a handshake meant something. That's not there anymore," he said.

• One local case involved thefts from 250 mailboxes. Deputies pulled a vehicle over and discovered the stacks of mail. The suspects were found living in a rented motel on a stolen credit card.

Don't leave mail in the mail box and you should have your checks and deposit slips mailed to your bank and not to your mailbox, Ramsey said.

There was $56.6 billion lost last year in identity thefts, and 63 percent of the victims had given out the compromised sensitive information obtained by criminals.

"They gave out the information to them. We can teach people not to become a victim," Van Hout said.

There were 8.9 million victims of identity theft last year. "I think that number is too low. A lot don't want to claim they've been cheated and some senior citizens don't come forward because they are scared family members might think they cannot take care of their finances and put them in a nursing home," Ramsey said.

"The emotional impact of identity theft has been found parallel to that of victims of violent crime," he said.

The topic of "social networks" on the Internet like the "My Space" account for young people was also discussed.

"Pedophiles try to use these chat rooms and other social networks to get to children," Van Hout said.

For more information on local frauds and scams, see the D.A.'s Web site at: www.buttecounty.net/da or call 1-866-DA-FRAUD to report cases of fraud or identity theft in Butte County.