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Experts, police offer advice to avoid fraud crimes during shopping season

Consumer advocates warn of identity theft scams

A card reader on a gas pump Thursday, Nov. 2 in Joliet.
A card reader on a gas pump Thursday, Nov. 2 in Joliet.

JOLIET – If it looks too good to be true, it probably really is.

That is what Andrea Hernandez, an Illinois Office of the Comptroller staff member, warned an audience gathered for an identity theft workshop Tuesday at White Oak Library, 20670 Len Kubinski Drive, Crest Hill.

The comptroller’s office gives several workshops to consumers, and the ones concerning identity theft are the most popular, she said.

Among the advice she gave was for people shopping online not to save their credit or debit card information on the websites they visit. If someone were to gain access to their account, they’d get all of their information.

“I know we’re used to having it easy and clicking a button and buying things fast, but it’s just a lot safer if you don’t save your information,” Hernandez said.

Identity theft has been singled out by federal law enforcement as the fastest-growing white collar crime in the U.S., according to the Better Business Bureau, a consumer advocacy organization.

One of the most high-profile incidents this year involved millions of consumers exposed to potential identity theft by a data breach of Equifax, a consumer credit reporting agency.

As the holiday shopping season continues, Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau’s Chicago-area branch, said consumers should be regularly reviewing their bank statements and also monitoring their credit reports at least once a year.

“Especially during the holidays is [the time] to be vigilant and watch your statements. The faster you can get to something, the faster you can get to it,” Bernas said.

But sometimes consumers can do everything to be vigilant against identity theft and still end up blindsided by the crime.

“Really, there is no 100 percent protection from identity theft because of all the breaches, such as Equifax,” Bernas said.

When it comes to preventing identity theft, the comptroller’s office recommends using a secure internet connection when entering personal information online, not replying to calls or unfamiliar emails and not clicking on anything in those emails.

Documents and paperwork with personal information should be shredded before they are trashed, and creditors and financial institutions, such as banks, should be notified of any unauthorized transactions, according to the comptroller’s office.

Hernandez recommended to the audience at the library that they should report suspicious activity or potential identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission or file a police report.

Joliet police Lt. Mike Batis said skimming – or stealing credit card information through fake ATM devices – has been a prominent identity theft crime in Joliet. Last December, a card skimming group was pulling information out of gas pumps and ATMs, he said. The groups will go from state to state.

Batis said the skimming group that hit stores last year planned it right around the holidays because they knew shopping would increase.

“That’s exactly why, it was because of the amount of traffic that they were going to get,” Batis said.

Batis said people should sign up for text message, email or phone alerts from banks for suspicious activity coming from their credit or debit cards. If people have elderly relatives, they should educate them on how to protect their finances and shop online safely. As with other experts, he said people should routinely check credit reports.

Of course, varieties of white collar crime that haven’t gone away are the “ever present IRS scams,” Batis said.

“It’s pretty prevalent these days. It seems like everybody has got them,” he said.