Identity theft a $21 billion industry

NORMAL — About 12 million identities are stolen every year, and the thefts come with a $21 billion price tag.

“It happens to all of us, so we have to be really careful,” said Betsy Miller, consumer affairs administrator for the Illinois Comptroller in Springfield. “The reason they take your identity is that this is their full-time job and they don’t want to work.”

Miller spoke at Evergreen Place Assisted Living in Normal on Wednesday as part of Money Smart Week activities in the Twin Cities.  Money Smart Week includes about 100 events throughout the Twin Cities focused on various financial topics and continues through Saturday.

Identity fraud can happen in a variety of ways, she said, including Wi-Fi connections, at the ATM, through door-to-door solicitations, phone calls, social media, text messages, in the mail and through emails.

Once your identity is stolen, it can take about 33 hours to freeze accounts, file theft reports, get new accounts and resolve the problem.

To avoid fraud, people should frequently watch their bank account activity and never give out personal information over the phone, Miller said. Scammers are now dumpster-diving to get information to use for identity theft.

“Anything with your name or address, make sure to shred it, that includes magazines and junk mail,” Miller said. “They just know all the tricks.”

Miller suggested that people keep track of when their bills are supposed to arrive in the mail to make sure that they haven’t been stolen by scammers looking for personal information and account numbers.

Scammers are also calling people to tell them their relative is in jail and needs money, Miller said. Thieves will also call people and inform them they just won a free vacation to get their personal information, she said.

“I got a phone call today; it was a free trip to the Bahamas,” said Rose Keller of Bloomington. “I just hung up.”

Keller said she and her husband often get calls often that their accounts may have been compromised.

“It’s hard not to be paranoid about all of this stuff,” Keller said. “These things seem to be happening more with what you thought was safe.”

“If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Miller said.

For online shoppers, Miller recommends using a credit card over a debit card because debit cards withdraw money in the bank and it can be difficult to get that back if it’s stolen. People should also close all of the other websites that are open before making an online purchase.

Identity theft can happen from information thieves find on social media websites, such as Facebook, so people should use caution with what they share online. Don’t reply to unsolicited emails, even if they look official. Miller added.

“The IRS is never going to send you an email,” she said.

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