Rural residents face a rise in identity theft


Issue Date: February 21, 2007
Christine Souza

Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department Detective Mason Mineni, right, talks to Ceres almond farmer Tim Sanders about identity theft prevention.

Cliff Emery is aware of the irony of his situation. A former farmer, he is among the more than 100 members of a Stanislaus County almond hulling and shelling cooperative whose personal information was stolen over the Christmas holiday. Emery is also an electronics surveillance specialist with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.

It just goes to show that identity theft can strike anyone—and anywhere.

"The burglars broke into the co-op hoffice and did a smash-and-grab. Once the alarm went off they vacated the premises with, at the very least, a computer that contained our Social Security numbers and tax identification numbers," Emery said. "Now the growers in the co-op are sitting around saying, 'What do we do?' It was a real wake-up call for my wife and I…a real jolt of reality."

In response, Emery helped organize a presentation at the Agricultural Center in Modesto where Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department detectives educated co-op members and other farmers about identity theft.

"People call me all of the time and want to know, 'How did they get my information?' Most of the time what we see is, it is some sort of residential, commercial or vehicle burglary," said Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department Detective Mason Mineni. "Long gone are the days where people are breaking into your car and stealing your radio. That is for kids."

Whether personal information is stolen from a lone mailbox on an isolated country road or a trash can or a pickup, the trend that many rural detectives are seeing in California counties is the theft of mail, credit cards and personal identities. Once thieves steal someone's personal financial information, it can be used to commit mail fraud, credit card theft or check fraud.

In Shasta County last month, sheriff's deputies recovered a box containing 32 pieces of opened and unopened mail that had been stolen from mailboxes in Redding and Shasta Lake. Authorities believe the thieves were looking for personal checks.

"There are different sources where thieves can get the information, but it seems like the easiest is your mail," said Shasta County Sheriff's Department Capt. Denis Carroll. "That is why it is important for people to do whatever they need to do to get rid of it (when they're done reading it). If you don't get rid of those numbers, people can pick that information up and become you very easily.

"People out there will go through the dumps and garbage cans and will take the opportunity to get your identification," Carroll said. "You have to take the precaution to try and prevent the crime. They are looking for an easy mark. Don't make yourself a target."

Detectives say identity thieves can be anyone from a methamphetamine user who is awake for days at a time to a group of organized criminals. These organized rings may have members who steal, sort and build folders of people's financial information that includes making identities and checks in the victims' names.

"These people commit identity theft because it is a low-risk means of obtaining money and goods," said Detective Joe Knittel of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. "Once they have your information, they can do it anywhere. They can do it over the phone or on the Internet. They can go to the public library and log on and use your information. They steal your identification to facilitate credit card fraud, check fraud and service fraud."

In rural areas, mail theft is one of the most significant problems related to identity theft. The U.S. Postal Service handles 668 million pieces of mail every day. Last year, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service arrested more than 6,000 mail theft suspects. California is one state that the service reports is facing volume mail thefts.

Nationwide the U.S. Postal Service reports that last year, more than 9.9 million people were victims of identity theft, which cost roughly $5 billion.

"When you talk to victims of identity theft, they feel like they have been violated because all of their personal information is out there and that in and of itself causes mental anguish," said Hilary Smith, postal inspector for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's San Diego field office. "On top of it, there is an extraordinary amount of work that a victim needs to do in order to repair the damage that an identity thief has done."

Those who investigate identity theft say that rural mailboxes are vulnerable because they are usually isolated and frequently are not visible from the box owners' homes.

"Mail theft is huge. Thinking like an identity thief, I'm going to the country where there are mailboxes that belong to people that have money," Mineni said. "They drive down the streets out in the middle of nowhere and they just open mailboxes and see what they can get. They just need one piece of information."

Thieves typically steal the mail and sign up for a credit card, having it sent to the victim's mailbox where they will pick up the card.

"The first thing they do with your card is go to the gas station. They put the card in the pump, and if you have the Visa feature on your card, it asks for your ZIP code. If I stole it here, I know your ZIP code and once I get gas I know it works," Mineni said. "Then I start using it at retail stores until you realize your card was taken."

Detectives also investigate cases of forged stolen personal or payroll checks that have been taken from a mailbox or a business.

"What we see is, people who make their own checks at home using the information taken from your stolen check," Knittel said. "The thieves are taking the account number from your checks and making new checks in their name, or they are calling your bank. There are so many different things you can do with that information."

It is not uncommon for mom-and-pop stores to cash these checks, detectives said. They are not checking to see if the business is legitimate and do not take a thumb print when the check is being cashed. In addition, washing ink from checks, although an old technique, still works, according to Knittel.

The Federal Trade Commission reports that in 2005, there were 45,175 victims of identity theft in California, with 25 percent of the victims' information being used for credit card fraud.

To secure mail, detectives recommend that rural residents and business owners get a post office box and take the extra time to pick up mail daily. This will be a more secure way of protecting checks and personal financial information.

"It is hard to change the mind-set of the old-school farmer. This is the way you've done business forever, so why should it change?" Mineni said. "But it is not that we want you to change your whole lives, just a few things to protect yourself."

Ceres almond farmer Tim Sanders, a director with the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, said it is time for farmers to be more aware of the criminal mind-set in today's society.

"We really have to be diligent because the world is changing. Rural crime is a growing problem," Sanders said. "As farmers we are generally more trusting. We have to develop a new awareness."

Identity theft: How to protect yourself

With identity theft becoming more prevalent in rural as well as urban areas, it pays to be prepared. Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department detectives recommend the following measures.

To prevent identity theft

  • Shred and destroy unwanted documents that contain personal information.
  • Acquire a post office box for the deposit and collection of mail rather than a home mailbox.
  • Don't leave outgoing mail in the mailbox for a long period of time, such as overnight or during the weekends.
  • Remove all of the items from your car that are in plain view. Keep them in the trunk or out of sight.
  • Don't carry your Social Security card on your person and do not write this number on checks.
  • Remove the overdraft protection on your checking account to prevent a thief from tapping into that amount of money in addition to your checking account.
  • Don't give out personal information over the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you have initiated the contact and know whom you are dealing with.
  • Always lock your personal or office computer with a password—one that is not obvious.
  • When working on the computer, do not respond to spam that says, "Click here to unsubscribe" since this validates to the spammer that it is a good e-mail address.

If you become a victim

  • Close accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Alert your bank to flag your accounts and contact you to confirm any unusual activity. Request a change of personal identification number and a new password.
  • Contact each of the three credit bureaus' fraud departments to place a fraud alert on your credit report. A fraud alert tells creditors to follow certain procedures before opening any new accounts. The three credit bureaus are Trans Union at www.tuc.com, Experian at www.experian.com and Equifax at www.equifax.com.
  • Get a copy of your credit report and go over it, ensuring that all of the accounts listed are yours. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com or www.freecreditreport.com. People are allowed one free credit report annually.
  • File your complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/idtheft. You may print a copy of your complaint to provide important standardized information that will supplement your police report.
  • File a report with your local sheriff's office or police department in the jurisdiction where the identity theft took place. Give the police a copy of your Federal Trade Commission identity theft complaint form. Report the identity theft as soon as possible.
  • Report theft of mail to your local postal inspector. For more information, go to www.usps.com/postalinspectors or call (800) ASK-USPS.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.