By Joe Beck
The plague of identity theft was much on the minds of 56 law enforcement officials from 24 agencies who gathered in Middletown on Wednesday to learn more about the crime and how to solve it.
The all-day session at the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy focused on laws, technology, protection strategies and databases helpful to investigators.
Virginia ranks 21st in the nation in the number of identity theft complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission in 2011, the last year for which data is available. The 5,416 statewide complaints included 179 from the Winchester area, the only community in the Northern Shenandoah Valley with available data. Winchester ranked 17th among the state's communities in the number of complaints per 100,000 population.
Paige Hanson, educational programs manager for Lifelock Inc., said identity theft is hard to prevent and often hard to solve. She cited as an example a small device known as a "skimmer," a small plastic device that can be placed inside gas pumps and other places where people swipe credit cards to pay for items such as groceries.
She said the skimmers are typically used by store employees to obtain credit card information and later buy items they charge to the victim's account, she said.
"I'm not saying you shouldn't use credit cards, but I will say there is a vulnerability that comes up with credit card skimming," Hanson said.
The spread of new forms of technology through hand-held mobile devices is another weak link in the security chain guarding personal identity, Hanson said.
"With evolving technology, it's going to be easier for you to access your own information because it's on a mobile device," she said. "Anything personal, it just means there's less security for your information. With technology advancing the way it is, who knows where it's going to lead?"
Lifelock, a Tempe, Ariz. company that sells credit card protection services, co-hosted Wednesday's training with the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association. The session was closed to the media.
Hanson said the vast array of personal data compiled in many places means there is no single action that can stop identity theft.
She recommended several simple steps that can help reduce the risk. They include obtaining a credit report annually from the online organization annualcreditreport.com.
Shredding mail and limiting the amount of personal information given out to organizations and businesses asking for Social Security numbers and other personal data can also be helpful, she said.
People should also be on the lookout for suspicious activity when others are handling their income tax forms, she said. Some schemers attempt to obtain big tax refunds by sending bogus information to the Internal Revenue Service that was obtained from someone else's tax form, she said.
"They say the average time to clear a tax fraud case is 18 months, so there are still people from 2011 who haven't gotten their refunds," Hanson said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org