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May 21, 2006

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Protecting your identity and children
BY PAULA M. FELIPE/Public Safety Reporter

This is the second part of a two-part series on how to protect yourself from identity theft and fraud. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey and D.A. Investigator Jos Van Hout provided a free public presentation on these topics during a symposium 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, and NBC's Today Show will air a segment of this special event on May 27.

About sixty people attended the symposium, which focused on educating the public and raising awareness about identity theft and fraud. Fake checks, credit card fraud, telemarketing and lottery frauds, and Internet fraud are on the rise.

One statistical report found the following fraudulent categories: Online auctions (42 percent); general merchandise (30 percent); Nigerian money offers (8 percent); fake checks (6 percent); lotteries (4 percent); Phishing (2 percent); info/adult services (1 percent); advance fee loans (1 percent); work at home plans (1 percent), and Internet access services (1 percent).

"If they send out 1000 fake emails and ten fall for it, then they are ahead by ten," Ramsey said. "Phishing" is a term that refers to the act of sending out scam emails and announcements that try to get you to look on their fakes websites and submit your personal information to them.

Some fake websites 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.

"When you double click on the link, 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 Korean."

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

Some "must know tips" on preventing fraud:

• 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. You can use annualcreditreport.com, but better still is call 877-322-8228 to obtain free credit report.

• Never leave paid bills in your mailbox.

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

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. Recently, 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.

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

• Some commit fraud by making fake I.D.'s using a plastic hotel key, which is the same size as a driver's license. Merchants need to double check the driver's license against the checks. Check the photo carefully too.

• 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, longguns, and protective 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.

One elderly Oroville resident was scammed out of $300,000 dollars thinking he had won $2 million in lotto money. And, in Canada the sentence for these kinds of lottery scams are three to nine months in jail. Ramsey lamented the light sentence. "$1.7 million was lost in 11 months to these scammers and they risk going to jail for three months. Where's the hammer?" Ramsey said.

"The elderly man who was a victim of these scammers was hoping the lotto money would pay for his great-grandchildren's college education," Ramsey continued. The D.A.'s Office was able to get $20,000 of the money back to the Oroville victim before the scammers could claim it in Canada.

"We've got to educate the elderly public not to be victims. I think about my own mother and how sweet she would always be to someone calling on the phone," Ramsey said. "Of course, my father would tell her to 'hang up the phone.'"

"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," Ramsey said. So, the scammers will send a bogus check to the victim to cash and tells the victim to send them a money order in return. "Well, when the elderly person takes the check to the bank, they often cash it because the bank has learned to trust this person. Only later, after the victim has sent the money order to the scammer does the bank realize the check is fake," Ramsey explained.

"Once you respond to any kind of these lottos or other scams, your name is sold on a 'sucker's list' and you will start receiving all kinds of more scams in the mail or over the internet," Ramsey said.

"If someone calls you about the Canadian lottery, hang up the phone. If they ask for personal information, hang up the phone," he said.

Contact the Federal Trade Commission or call 1-866-DA-FRAUD to report fraud.

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. (See box for summary highlights on protecting children from predators on the Internet.)