The Times West Virginian

October 28, 2012

Identity Theft Consumer Resource Unit in operation

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — The West Virginia Office of the Attorney General wants identity theft victims to know that its experts are on hand to help.

Last week, West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw’s office officially started the Identity Theft Consumer Resource Unit, which is under the office’s Consumer Protection Division.

“We’ve always had our mission to educate the public as much as we can on identity theft before it happens,” said Chris Hedges, senior assistant attorney general. “It’s a growing crime.”

Despite the fact that identity theft is constantly addressed by the media, many members of the public still don’t understand how personal information is obtained by thieves and the amount of information that these crooks are capable of gathering, he said.

Hedges said the Consumer Protection Division tries to stress the importance of protecting everyday personal information — even basic things like name and address — that can verify an individual’s identity.

Some people publicize their personal information on social media websites, and criminals are able to pull all of those facts together, he said. By getting one piece of information about a person, especially the Social Security number, the criminal can proceed to find the rest of the pieces of the puzzle and pretend to be that person and take out credit in their name.

Consumers can take many efforts to protect themselves from identity theft, but oftentimes criminals are still able to obtain information from inside sources, Hedges said.

“In West Virginia, most of those credit card identity thefts are within the family or someone you know,” he said.

Simple credit card fraud or stealing debit card numbers constitutes identity theft in many ways, Hedges said.

People need to be especially careful how they use their debit cards, and not let their card leave their sight. While federal law provides rights for victims of credit card theft, there isn’t any protection for debit cards that are used fraudulently, he said.

Hedges said the Consumer Protection Division has always helped victims of identity theft in various ways, and has been working to start the Identity Theft Consumer Resource Unit for a while. The division felt that last week, declared as “National Protect Your Identity Week,” was a good time to launch the unit and to develop some strategies.

“We’ve put together some people who work here and have particular expertise in identity theft and particular experience in it, in handling complaints and dealing with these matters and informing the public,” he said. “It’s a more concentrated effort.”

The team is ready to take people’s telephone calls on identity theft prevention, provide resources, and work with victims to offer immediate assistance. The Identity Theft Consumer Resource Unit has a tool kit that it can distribute to victims, Hedges said.

People can call 1-800-368-8808 to file complaints or talk to experts in the unit about the steps to take to repair the damage. Individuals can also email idtheft@wvago.gov, or go online to www.wvago.gov to access resources about identity theft prevention.

A woman whose purse had been stolen called the unit early last week. While this wasn’t an act of identity theft by itself, a stolen purse or wallet — which is filled with so much personal information — is often the first act in the long road that leads to identity theft, Hedges said.

He said the woman had already taken many steps to protect herself after her purse was stolen, such as calling banks and filing a police report. But she didn’t know to call the credit reporting agencies to put out a fraud alert.

“If they are a victim, we’ll be telling them right away to make that fraud alert happen,” he said.

When a credit bureau is contacted about a fraud alert, they are required to notify the other two major credit bureaus so they will also place the fraud alert on that person’s credit report, Hedges said. As long as that fraud alert is on the credit report, a thief can’t go to a bank and take out credit in that person’s name.

“Every consumer in West Virginia needs to put a credit freeze on a credit report,” he said. “It’s a different kind of mechanism available at credit reporting agencies.”

Using this tool, people can pay $5 per credit bureau for a credit freeze to be instituted. Credit can’t be taken out in their name unless they are contacted to provide their pin number and lift the credit freeze, Hedges said.

“The process of cleaning up identity theft can take years,” especially if the victim doesn’t act fast or even if it’s someone with a stellar credit record, he said.

Hedges said people can still get calls from debt collectors years later, when that debt was really incurred by crime and doesn’t actually belong to the consumer. The Attorney General’s Office can take action on the consumer’s behalf if a debt collector is engaging in unlawful debt-collection practices.

The office and its new Identity Theft Consumer Resource Unit are ready to help people now and in the future, he said.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.