Identity thieves don't steal just credit cards

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Posted: Monday, May 20, 2013 12:00 am

Not all that long ago, many of us thought we only had to watch our credit cards to avoid ID theft. If the crooks didn't get the numbers on our plastic, we thought, they couldn't live it up and go on a wild shopping spree like the one in the movie “Identity Thief.”

But ID theft scams are all over the map, both in terms of geography and kinds of fraud, according to Federal Trade Commission data.

In many states — including Michigan, Kentucky, California, Texas and elsewhere — the largest area for ID theft complaints involves fraud relating to government documents or benefits.

Maybe someone without medical insurance steals your identity to get health care insurance, said Peter Schoenrock, senior vice president for management at Equifax.

Or an ID thief can steal information to falsely apply for jobless claims, he said. Or fake IDs are used to create fake tax returns that are packed with lucrative tax benefits, such as the education credits or the Earned Income Tax Credit, to create generous refunds for criminals.

No, you don't want to leave your credit cards easily in view. But pay attention to your other paperwork, too. You'd be shocked where you'd spot a Social Security number casually tossed around in your house.

Digging through a stack of old papers in the attic, I found my Social Security number written on an old economics test from back in college. Yes, this was many years ago but there was a Social Security number on a test next to my name. I guess that was OK back in the day. But if I'm cleaning, I sure don't want to carelessly toss that paper in the trash. Time to shred it.

Snowbirds with winter homes in Florida may want to be even more cautious about their Medicare cards, bank statements and other ID when heading south. Florida ranks No. 1 for ID theft among 50 states, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission.

Florida's senior citizens are vulnerable as fraud targets; it doesn't hurt that there are many people who travel to Florida on vacation, either. Georgia is No. 2 on the FTC Consumer Sentinel report's list of states with the highest per capita rates of identity theft. California came in at No. 3.

Equifax — which launched the site to give an in-depth look at ID theft — also noted that areas that have had surges in unemployment or foreclosures may be at more risk for ID theft.

In some cases, some people may feel desperate for cash and be more willing to hand over the Social Security number of a child to someone who is going to create a fake tax return. Or they might be more willing to participate in other scams if they think they can get quick cash and won't get caught.

Here are some scams that ID crooks use:

» The fake landlord. Spot a great deal on a vacation condo? Maybe a super price on a dream house? Housing scams have been popular in Michigan and elsewhere. Consumers have lost deposit money — and sensitive information that can be used for ID theft — when agreeing to a rental property scam and they don't realize they've been scammed until they go on vacation.

“You arrive at the rental property. They greet you at the door and they have no idea what you're talking about,” said Adam Levin, chairman of Identity Theft 911. warns consumers that they should not agree to credit checks or background checks for a job or housing until meeting an interviewer or landlord in person.

» The free prize that pops up on your cellphone. The Federal Trade Commission took action earlier this year against marketers that sent unwanted text messages offering “free” gift cards. Once spammers have your personal information, it can be sold to marketers or end up in the hands of ID thieves.

» Watch your child's ID. The most stolen piece of identification from a child is a Social Security number, and sometimes it's a family member or friend who commits this crime, said Dianne Shovely, vice president of fraud services at Comerica Bank in Auburn Hills, Mich. Keep birth certificates and information that contains a child's Social Security number, such as your tax return, carefully locked away.

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