Originally created 01/08/01

Area authorities combat identity theft



Identity theft continues to be a booming industry fueled by the increasing resourcefulness of scofflaws and the seemingly boundless gullibility of consumers.

In Georgia, it accounts for at least $40 million a year plucked from unsuspecting consumers' accounts, and Augustans are being hit, without bias, along with the rest of the state.

The Richmond County Sheriff's Office confirms such thievery saps much of its investigators' resources.

"We get cases all the time," Lt. Ed Harris said.

Identity theft occurs when a person steals funds from another by using personal information, such as Social Security numbers. Therefore, a wide variety of crimes can fall under the umbrella of identity theft.

Lt. Harris said the investigations division handles an average of 30 identity theft-related cases per month. At least a handful of those involve a business's employees misappropriating customer information, such as credit card numbers, to which they have access.

Credit cards are a hot target because thieves can take advantage of high credit limits that can be used for big-ticket items or multiple smaller purchases.

The victim's liability in the fraudulent charges varies, said Bill Cloud, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs. On a credit card, consumers are usually responsible for a flat $50 fee when identity-based fraud occurs.

But bank account liability may vary, he said. In most cases, the bank should have verified against signature cards if the transactions were suspect. A victim can't recover stolen funds if they were in the form of cashier's checks or money orders.

"You are kind of out of luck," Mr. Cloud said.

The main woe for consumers is the time spent clearing their names, because identity thieves will often use a victim's identification to open lines of credit. When the bills come due and payments aren't made, the information shows up as negative marks on a consumer's credit report.

"What we recommend that people do is get a copy of their credit file at least once a year," said Leon Gentry, president of Merchants Credit Bureau of Augusta, a branch office of Experian, one of the three major credit reporting agencies. "That way they can check to see if there is anything in their file that shouldn't be."

Georgia consumers can obtain free credit reports up to two times per year by contacting Experian ((888) 397-3742), Equifax Inc. ((800) 525-6285) or Trans Union LLC ((800) 680-7289). South Carolina residents must pay for reports unless they have been recently turned down for credit or they suspect fraudulent activity under their names.

Consumers can also check with the Social Security Administration ((800) 772-1213) to determine whether anyone may have assumed their numbers to earn income without paying taxes.

If fraudulent activity appears, consumers can contact the Federal Trade Commission at (877) IDTHEFT or at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

The damage caused by identity theft can be difficult to repair.

"Around here, we've nicknamed it (identity fraud) the `two-year headache"' Mr. Cloud said. "It takes about two years to get it cleared up."

Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.