What’s in a name? Trouble for identity theft victims

January 17, 2020 Paula Katinas
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Bay Ridge woman reveals how it changed her life

BAY RIDGE — A 53-year-old woman knew something was terribly wrong when she opened her mailbox in December and discovered a bill from Spectrum for $1,000.

The woman quickly figured out that she was a victim of identity theft and contacted police at the 68th Precinct.

The thieves “took my Social Security number and my name and opened a Spectrum account in my name,” the victim told the Home Reporter.

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The woman, a retired New York Police Department civilian worker, reached out to this newspaper because she wanted to alert the public. “People should know this is going on. They should know that there are people out there looking to steal their personal information,” she said.

She requested that her name not be published.

The victim had her bank freeze her credit card just to be on the safe side.

“I’m constantly scared. These are horrible people,” she said of the thieves.

She doesn’t know how the thieves got hold of her Social Security information.

But she said she reported the theft to Spectrum and added that the company has been very cooperative with her.

Meanwhile, police at the 68th Precinct “are trying to make an arrest,” she said. She doesn’t expect her case to be resolved quickly. “It takes time,” she said.

She has been the victim of identity theft before. A few years ago, someone stole a check she had written.

The two incidents have left her tired and frightened. “I’m constantly scared. It’s exhausting. You have to work to clear your name,” she said.

Identity theft is common in the U.S., according to the Insurance Information Institute.

In 2018, consumers reported losing approximately $1.48 billion to fraud complaints, an increase of $406 million from 2017, according to the organization, which cited statistics from the Federal Trade Commission. The median amount consumers paid in identity theft cases was $375.

In 2018, 15 percent of all complaints to the FTC were related to identity theft.

For more information, visit: https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-identity-theft-and-cybercrime.

Capt. Robert Conwell, commanding officer of the 68th Precinct, confirmed that the precinct is investigating the Bay Ridge woman’s case.

Conwell, who said the NYPD takes identity theft very seriously, outlined the different types of scams and spoke about steps people can take to protect themselves.

“There are different types of identity theft crimes out there that people should be made aware of,” Conwell told the Home Reporter.

“I do see a lot of seniors as victims. But this can happen to anyone,” he said.

One of the most common identity theft crimes is a phone scam in which thieves pose as representatives of Con Ed or other companies, call a victim and tell them they are behind in their bill. If they don’t pay up immediately, their electricity will be turned off, they tell the victim.

There is a twist, however. Instead of cash or a check, the crooks instruct the victim to purchase a gift card, such as an Apple or an Ebay card, and transmit the gift card number online to the caller.

“It is all done electronically. That’s what makes it hard to catch,” Conwell said.

The telephone thieves have also posed as IRS agents and law enforcement officials.

Conwell advises residents who receive such menacing calls to call the utility or agency to verify that the call is indeed coming from a legitimate source.

Chances are, it isn’t legitimate.

“An agency is never going to call you and demand payment with a gift card,” Conwell said.

Stores like Rite Aid have grown wise to the scam. They require customers purchasing gift cards to read a warning about identity theft and check a box indicating that they have read it before the purchase can be completed.

“When you have a person coming into the store and buying hundreds of dollars in gift cards, it gets your attention,” he said.

Another common scam is “mail fishing.”

That’s when thieves steal mail out of sidewalk mailboxes to get their hands on checks. They then wash away the name of the person or company the check is made out to, and replace it with their name to make it appear as if the person writing the check wrote it to them as a payment.

“They intercept the check,” Conwell explained. “And then they cash the check via a mobile app, so it’s hard to catch them.”

The 68th Precinct arrested three suspects last summer after they allegedly broke into mailboxes and stole mail.

The federal government has taken steps to combat mail fishing. The U.S. Postal Service has retrofitted all mailboxes in Bay Ridge with narrow openings to make it difficult for thieves to get into the boxes to steal mail.

There are steps residents can take to protect themselves, according to Conwell.

“Minimize your paper checking. Digital banking is safe. If you still write out checks to pay your bills, mail your bills closer to the pickup time so the bills aren’t sitting in the mailbox for long periods of time,” he said.

Residents should also stay on top of their accounts, including credit card accounts. “If you notice unusual activity, alert the bank,” Conwell said.

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