Police discuss what consumers — and retailers — can do to stop ID fraud

By: Mike Koury, Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 21, 2016

 Bloomfield Township police are looking for this man, who allegedly used several stolen credit cards to purchase cartons of cigarettes from a local gas station.

Bloomfield Township police are looking for this man, who allegedly used several stolen credit cards to purchase cartons of cigarettes from a local gas station.

Photo provided by the Bloomfield Township Police Department

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BEVERLY HILLS — Fraud and identity theft can be considered something of an equalizer: They’re so prevalent that anyone could be vulnerable.

Ask a law enforcement official and they’re likely to tell you their department has seen a massive spike in crimes that involve identity theft, fraud, phone scams or other technology-driven financial crimes.

Even Lt. Michael Vargas, of the Beverly Hills Public Safety Department, who’s used to investigating criminal reports, found himself on the opposite end of a complaint recently after someone filed a workers’ compensation claim using his name and Social Security number.

“Obviously, I’m not unemployed,” he said.

Since the village of Beverly Hills would have been part of the claim, the state sent the village a notice, which was how Vargas found out about the fraud.

Vargas said the fraud was part of a larger investigation, and indictments are to follow.

“Now I just have to go through the hassle of contacting my bank and my credit card companies, and I gotta check my taxes,” he said. “Make sure that somebody hasn’t filed for a tax return using the same information.”

Vargas said he has no idea how someone obtained his information, as he hasn’t done anything out of the ordinary that would require the release of his private information, like going to the hospital for instance.

“There’s only certain things where you’re using your Social Security number,” he said. “I haven’t taken out any loans. Nothing out of the ordinary.

“Ninety percent of the time, it’s not someone hacking into your system. It’s someone working somewhere where they have access to it.”

However, Sgt. James Gallagher, of the Bloomfield Township Police Department, said his department’s fraud investigation division believes that in most cases of identity theft, the information is snagged by crooks who utilize credit card skimmers at certain retailers or in large corporate data breaches.

“When people make online purchases, then sometime later that company’s information is hacked, we see reports come in from people who said someone (used their information),” he explained.

It’s easier than ever for criminals to steal the information they need to open fraudulent credit accounts or file false tax returns in a victim’s name. Gallagher said thieves can even buy the information in bulk overseas or online.

A Bloomfield Township resident in the 7200 block of Meadow Lake told police that it only took a couple of weeks after a data breach for someone to use her information.

According to reports, she was notified in November 2015 that a U.S. government office of personnel management had been hacked and her information might be at risk. A short time later, she started to receive unsolicited credit card applications. She was even contacted by Home Depot about a credit application she hadn’t applied for.

The suspect, a 47-year-old Detroit woman, was arrested a short time later in Toledo when she attempted to open a line of credit at an Ohio Menards using the victim’s information. She even had a fraudulent Michigan ID card with her own photo, but listing the victim’s name and address.

There’s a good chance the bogus photo ID would have been sufficient to get past a sales clerk if police weren’t investigating the suspect. In fact, Gallagher said, more often than not, retailers don’t check for identification at all.

“I don’t care if it’s a self-swipe machine, clerks should be asking for ID. And they’ve never doing it,” he said.

On March 15, a man walked away with about 20 pricey cartons of cigarettes that he bought from the Mobil gas station at 6490 Telegraph using multiple fraudulent credit cards.

Gallagher said the suspect, who left the scene in a black or blue Ford sedan, spent 45 minutes in the station buying one carton at a time, switching up the cards.

“It would’ve helped had the clerk asked to see identification,” said Gallagher. “This particular station does not sell many cartons of cigarettes.

In fact, that’s how we found out what happened. The manager came in later and when they did an inventory, they saw they had sold a bunch of cartons, and then they saw what happened and called us. When you’ve got someone in there buying 20 of them, there really should’ve been a red flag.”

A manager at the gas station couldn’t be reached before press time.

No matter the method, cases of fraud are rising at an alarming rate in Bloomfield Township, Gallagher said.

The same goes for Birmingham, where crimes dipped in every category during 2015 with the exception of fraud and forgeries. Fraud jumped up to 181 cases in 2015 from 105 the year before and 83 cases in 2013, according to the department’s annual report.

Though consumers are starting to get smarter about protecting their information, and credit card companies are doing their part by upping security on cards and readers, it’s still not enough.

“There was a certain date everyone needed to be using the cards with the new chips in them. The retailers were supposed to move to the new readers, and the companies should’ve released new cards, but that date has long passed. Retailers would just say it’s too costly to move to the upgraded readers,” he explained. “The bottom line is the criminals are always a step ahead. We can put up a safeguard, but they’re always a step ahead.”

But consumers can still take whatever steps available to protect their identity. Sensitive paperwork should always be shredded, and information should never be shared over the phone. If a caller asks for a Social Security number or credit card, there’s a chance it could be a phone scam.

Credit monitoring agencies are helpful too, though most of us could do the same thing by checking our credit regularly to look for any abnormalities.

That’s what Vargas did. After he learned he had been a victim of fraud, he contacted his credit monitoring agencies and froze his account for 90 days. So far, there hasn’t been any other suspicious action using his name.

The only way to thwart a criminal who wants to file a false tax return in your name is to file as early as possible, before they get the chance.

And since so many businesses fail to do their due diligence and check a customer’s identification for each credit transaction, the safest way to go is so simple it might seem primitive.

“Just pay cash,” Gallagher said. “Sure, now you’re at risk of losing that money if you’re robbed, but (it ends there).”

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