Shocked and confused, junior Terry Thomas checked his bank statement and noticed a charge he did not make.
His online statement said he spent $200 for a Paypal transaction, but he did not have a Paypal account.
“I was definitely a little frustrated because I had never had anything like this happen to me,” Thomas said. “I am fairly careful about my online purchases.”
That day Thomas joined the ranks of countless victims of identity theft, a crime that is quickly becoming Huntsville Police Department’s number one problem.
Senior Colin McCown experienced a similar situation when he discovered fraudulent charges made to his Bank of America account this past summer.
“I didn’t really get why this would happen since I am an average college student with little money in my bank account,” McCown said.
While McCown is uncertain of how the thief was able to steal his information, he believes the viruses infecting his old computer might have been a factor.
“I think the biggest thing about having my credit card information stolen was that they only took $77. But because of that, I accumulated $650 of overdraft fees in addition to the amount that was stolen,” McCown said.
Both Terry and McCown’s banks refunded their money in a timely manner, but some victims are not as lucky.
Stories like these have become commonplace to the Huntsville Police Department, which say they typically get two to three calls a day about identity theft.
In the past year, identity theft cases have soared to 500% at HPD. At this rate, Huntsville and its inhabitants might see a nearly 750% hike by the end of the year.
“Most identity theft cases are a result of data breaches,” Police Officer Joe Thorton said.
According to Thorton, a data breach occurs when a company or banking institution’s information is stolen or hacked into via a computer. Data breaches are alarmingly common in today’s high tech world. 400 million businesses have reported data breaches since 2005, and a lot of theft goes undetected.
“Most [identity theft] cases occur out of the state, and there is nothing in place to try to track down the problem. Plus, a lot of businesses don’t report what has happened because there is no evidence of it,” Thorton said.
HPD suggests a variety of ways to protect yourself. First, never carry your original social security card.
“If you must have your social security card with you, make a copy, or write down the part of your social security number that you cannot remember,” Thorton said.
Second, use caution when making online purchases. Ebay scams are on the rise. If you must purchase something online, make sure the website is legitimate before making any transactions.
“It is so important that everyone who does business on their personal computer make sure they have the proper firewalls in place and don’t download anything that might give your computer Trojans,” Thorton said.
Another tip is that card holders should always sign debit and credit cards with permanent ink. It’s also good to have a mailbox at a central location. Mailboxes left unattended are often targeted by thieves.
Lastly, Thorton recommends people have only one to two credit cards. Fewer cards make it significantly easier to manage finances and check online statements.
He says it’s also a good idea to run a credit check quarterly at websites such as http://www.equifax.com.
Companies and banking institutions are becoming very proactive in fighting identity theft.
“They’ve started using firewalls and other precautions to protect sensitive information in order to keep customers,” Thorton said.
But thieves are always inventing new ways to steal personal information.
For example, skimming is a method sometimes used by waiters who stash a device in their apron. This device is used to scan the card for pertinent information.
“That is why it is important to be aware of your surroundings,” Thorton said.
Police say too many of us are blissfully ignorant of identity theft and constant vigilance is needed to protect any personal information from intruders.
“Identity theft is such a growing crime because it’s so easy to do,” Thorton concluded. “It’s scary.”
For more information on identity theft, visit http://www.idtheftcenter.org/?source=googleSS or visit http://www.idtheftcenter.org/artman2/publish/lib_survey/ITRC_2008_Breach_List.shtml for an annual list of high profile data breaches.