The transaction seemed simple enough; it involved the purchase of a boat part advertised in a classified ad offered for sale by a business. What made this transaction different was the seller insisted that the buyers send payment in the form of a cashiers check accompanied by a "personal identification sheet" that included a wide variety of data including a Social Security number. At least three buyers complied with these terms and the sales all appeared to go smoothly. Payment was made as requested and the part arrived as described and in a timely manner. But the problems were just beginning for the buyers who had unknowingly become victims of identity theft.
In August of 2005, a lawyer representing a credit card company contacted one of the victims in an attempt to resolve a debt from a merchant account opened in his name through a Safety Harbor business. The victim, a retired law enforcement officer, had never heard of the business he allegedly owned and in fact he had never even visited Florida. This began a lengthy investigation by the Sheriff's Office Economic Crimes Unit, which recently resulted in the arrest of a Crystal Beach man on charges of identity theft and scheming to defraud.
According to detectives, the suspect in this case used the personal information he obtained through the sale of marine parts to open at least two businesses in the names of people who had purchased items from him. He then fraudulently opened merchant accounts with credit card companies, allowing him to obtain two credit card processing machines. The machines were then used to electronically transfer funds from a list of about 300 credit cards that had been stolen or otherwise compromised. By the time his actions were discovered, the suspect had acquired more than $118,000 through the fraudulent credit card activity and had obtained more than $10,000 through check fraud.
I would like to take this opportunity to remind anyone conducting business through the mail or over the Internet to use caution when sending personal information. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice more than a quarter million Americans were the victims of identity theft in 2005 costing them more than $300 million.
Some simple suggestions for minimizing your chances of becoming a victim of identity theft include monitoring all of your bank statements from every credit card every month. It is also strongly recommended that you never place your social security number on your checks or your credit receipts and whenever possible use an alternative to your Social Security number for identification purposes. Experts in personal security recommend removing your name from promotional lists and ordering a copy of your credit report at least twice a year. This allows you the opportunity to correct and identify errors or fraud quickly before extensive damage can occur.
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