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Identity theft leads consumer gripes list: Berks residents are among thousands of Pennsylvanians who have been victims of crimes cited in FTC report.
[February 28, 2010]

Identity theft leads consumer gripes list: Berks residents are among thousands of Pennsylvanians who have been victims of crimes cited in FTC report.

Feb 27, 2010 (Reading Eagle - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- DORIS SMITH said she was stunned when she learned that almost $3,000 in calls had been charged to her cell phone. Smith said she now lives in fear someone could do it again. Her cell phone provider told her that her phone had been "cloned" and they would remove the charges. "I don't even know what that means," Smith said. "How can I prevent it if I don't even understand how they did it?" Smith, 56, of Hyde Park is just one of thousands of Pennsylvanians and tens of thousands of Americans whose cases made identity theft the No. 1 consumer complaint in 2009, according to a Federal Trade Commission report released Friday. Smith said she was told someone charged calls to Jamaica and the Dominican Republic to her phone after getting the device's digital code. "What scares me is that they told me it happens all the time," Smith said. "Not to me, it doesn't." According to the FTC report, there were 9,887 identity theft complaints made by Pennsylvanians, moving the state up four slots in the national ranks to 14th from 18th last year.

The top three types of identity fraud reported were credit card fraud, phone or utilities fraud, and document and benefi ts fraud.

Carol Layton said she will be among the consumer complaints reflected in the commission's 2010 report.

Layton said she put her Exeter Township home up for sale with a local real estate firm and also posted photos and an ad for the house on an Internet real estate site.

Someone copied her ad and created an add off ering the house for rent at $750 a month, about a third of its value as a rental.

Layton saw the rental ad and contacted her real estate agent. The ad was taken down and the fraud was reported.

But a few days later a man knocked on her door. He said he was the new tenant and wanted to take a look inside.

"I called the police and they said this was a common occurrence," Layton said. "If it's so common, why aren't the police warning people about this?" Denise Richardson is a Florida-based consumer advocate and author of "Give Me My Credit Back," a 2006 book chronicling her own experiences with identity theft. She said consumers have to educate themselves and take responsibility for their credit.

Richardson, who specializes in identity theft prevention, said consumers cannot assume that banks, credit card, mortgage, cell phone and other companies don't make mistakes.

"You can cancel a credit card or a cell phone account, but you can't cancel your date of birth or Social Security number," she said.

With cases like Smith's, Richardson said one way that con artists get the information they need to clone a phone's profile is by calling that phone, falsely purporting to be from the cell phone company or some other trusted source.

"Once you call that number back, they can load malicious software onto your phone," Richardson said.

Since her own identity was swiped in 2003, Richardson said she subscribes to a service that monitors her credit reports, cell phone usage and new credit card applications.

Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams said common sense is the best guide.

He said consumers should not give any information to anyone they are not certain they can trust. And, he said, especially be wary of giving information to unsolicited phone callers or e-mailers.

"We continue to hear story and story of phone and Internet solicitations which are fraudulent," Adams said. "Use caution and common sense." He said the fraud schemes are growing in variety and complexity.

"The thing with identity theft is that though it is extremely easy to prevent, it is very hard to prosecute once it occurs," he said.

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