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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Jun. 5, 2014 4 years ago

Expert gives tips on avoiding identity theft

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by: Tony Judnich

In 2013, Florida ranked first in the nation for the number of identity theft and fraud cases.

That’s according to Theresa Ronnebaum, a victim services program specialist from the Florida Office of the Attorney General in Orlando. On June 2, she spoke to more than a dozen seniors in Ocoee on how to avoid becoming ID theft victims.

At the Emeritus at Ocoee retirement community, 80 N. Clarke Road, Ronnebaum said the top five types of ID theft in Florida involve: government documents or benefits fraud, such as unemployment benefits; credit cards; phone or other utilities; bank fraud; and employment-related fraud.

Ways of battling scammers, she said, include storing one’s Social Security card in a safe place instead of carrying it around in a purse or wallet. Identity thieves often sell Social Security numbers to illegal immigrants or use the numbers to apply for credit, she said.

Ronnebaum also urged people to always be aware of their surroundings, because someone with a cell-phone camera could take a photo of a check being written out in the open at a business.

“A lot of identity theft today utilizes technology,” said Ronnebaum, who has spoken throughout the country about identity theft for the U.S. Department of Justice since 2007 and, over the past decade, has appeared on the ABC News show “20/20” and local TV programs.

She said people must also be wary of checks that require them to pay a fee before cashing it, “like a check from your Nigerian cousin.” No legitimate lottery or sweepstakes will ever demand up-front fees, she said.

In addition, Ronnebaum discussed the “grandparent scam,” which involves someone calling a senior late at night — when they’re half asleep — claiming to be their grandchild or other relative who is in trouble and needs money immediately.

A woman who is an Emeritus at Ocoee resident said she was aware of this scam.

“I got a call like that once,” the woman said. “I asked, ‘Well, if you’re my son, how old are you?’ He hung up.”

“Good for you,” Ronnebaum said. “That was the right thing to do.”

Ronnebaum told the seniors they can also protect their identities by shredding personal documents whenever possible and by destroying the labels on their prescription bottles and packages after they’re done with them. Such precautions will help in the long run: the number of hours an ID-theft victim works to clear his/her name is 200, according to information from Ronnebaum.

Here are other tips she shared:

• Do not reply to an email, text or pop-up message that asks for personal or financial information, and do not click on links in the message

• Review monthly credit card and bank statements to detect fraudulent activity

• Protect passwords and PIN numbers and keep them in a safe location

• Obtain a free annual credit report and check for discrepancies by calling 877-322-8228 or by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com

• Report incidents of identity theft and fraud to local law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC’s Identity Theft Hotline is 877-438-4338. Its website is www.ftc.gov/idtheft.

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