Originally created 02/23/03

Who has your number?



Robert Blocker purchased a big-screen TV from Best Buy }using the Augusta store's attractive 18-month, no-interest payment plan.

Mr. Blocker charged the $2,100 Christmas holiday purchase to his new Best Buy account. He was later shocked to learn that the bill also included $600 in charges for X-Box and Playstation video games with titles he never heard of.

"The last video game I ever bought was one of those old Nintendo games," said Mr. Blocker, a middle school football coach from Louisville, Ga.

On Tuesday, police charged a former Best Buy employee with taking the coach's account number and shopping for himself.

Police say 19-year-old Coby DeWayne Walker of Augusta used his job as customer service representative to gain access to four customer accounts. He then charged the accounts with $8,500 in video games, DVDs and electronic gadgets, items he took home, said Richmond County Sheriff's Investigator Charlena Graham.

The case, similar to many others now in local courts, shows that identity theft cannot be prevented simply by shredding credit card bills and keeping Social Security numbers hidden. Many times, the thieves are inside sources, people you willingly give your information to.

Although the trend has led retailers to take additional security measures, officials say the problem shows that anyone can be a victim.

"You can go to make a purchase, and the employee may write down your credit card number off the receipt," said Richmond County Sheriff's Investigator Pat Stahler, adding that he has noticed an increase in the number of fraud cases involving store employees during the past two years.

Identity-theft complaints have risen 73 percent during the past year, according to a new report by the Federal Trade Commission. And identity theft topped the list of consumer complaints in 2002, accounting for 43 percent of all complaints, said Howard Beales III, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

"What we're seeing increasingly is ID theft that occurred because some insider sees information and steals it from a company. It may be an ID list or a customer list," Mr. Beales said. "And there's very little a consumer can do to prevent that."

THE NATIONAL RETAIL FEDERATION said retailers are not turning a blind eye to the possibility that employees can take advantage of customers.

"With the electronic signature pad, the associates or the employees of the store don't have as much access to the paper copies of your account number or signatures," said Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the federation.

At most grocery stores, customers swipe their own card and enter the personal identification number. The cashier never touches the credit card, and the receipt only includes the last four numbers of the account.

Companies also use surveillance equipment and security guards to watch both customers and employees, Mr. Butler said.

"You have to keep it in perspective," Mr. Butler said. "Yes, things like that happen. But all of these companies have systems in place to catch these people and not only apprehend them, but prosecute them and seek restitution."

Best Buy spokeswoman Donna Beadle said her company holds training sessions on fraud, requires employees to sign an ethics agreement and has a company code book prohibiting theft.

Ms. Beadle said Best Buy hires an independent firm to conduct criminal background checks on job applicants. But the spokeswoman could not explain why Mr. Walker was able to work at the Augusta store while on probation for a 2001 conviction of theft by receiving stolen property.

"I can't comment on a specific case, but they (background checks) are done," Ms. Beadle said.

An Augusta woman reported her 1997 Mitsubishi Eclipse stolen and police found Mr. Walker with it two weeks later, on April 12, 2001. He pleaded guilty to the theft and was placed on four years' probation under the first offender program.

MR. WALKER WAS CHARGED with seven felony counts of financial transaction card fraud last week. Investigator Graham said she suspects that he likely asked a friend to bring the items to the register, where Mr. Walker charged them to other customers. He was likely selling the stolen items for cash, she said.

Mr. Blocker didn't figure out the fraud until after Christmas, when he received his bill for $2,700.

"When I saw my statement, I had a feeling I knew what happened. The employee who waited on me was wanting to get me in and get me out quick," he said. "I knew I had only paid $2,100 for the TV."

When Mr. Blocker called Wilmington, Del., to talk to officials who operate the Best Buy account, he said they insisted it was he who had purchased the video games. Mr. Blocker then asked the company to send him a copy of the signature for the purchase.

"It was a scribble. It wasn't even a signature," he said.

Getting the $600 in charges removed from his Best Buy account has not been easy. Mr. Blocker has written two dispute letters, had countless phone conversations with company officials and consulted with his attorney.

Fear of future fraud led him to cut up his American Express card to prevent someone getting that number and misusing it.

"It makes you think twice," he said. "Once I pay off my TV, I won't keep my (Best Buy) account open."

Another victim in the Walker case, who asked that his name not be used, said he was so frustrated that he closed his account and returned the TV and DVD player that he had purchased with it.

"I treat my credit very seriously," he said.

WHAT'S YOUR LIABILITY?

Under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act, your liability for unauthorized charges on revolving credit accounts, such as credit cards and store accounts, is limited to $50.

Visa and MasterCard customers have zero liability for unauthorized purchases, providing the accounts are in good standing. You should notify your card issuer promptly upon discovering the loss. Many companies have 24-hour toll-free numbers to deal with such emergencies.

Debit cards, which charge purchases to a bank account instead of a credit account, are treated differently. If someone uses your debit card, or makes other electronic fund transfers, without your permission, you can lose from $50 to $500 or more, depending on when you report the loss or theft.

CREDIT CARD FRAUD

The following people have been recently charged with, or are being sought for, felony financial transaction card fraud. All were retail employees who stole customers' card numbers, according to authorities.

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Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.