During an attempt to refinance his home, Wilson encountered problems due to identity theft. "Here I am working in it and kinda got slack."
Wilson, who specializes in identity theft and crimes against property, said he receives roughly 30 reports per month - almost one per day - of some type of identity fraud or theft.
Cartersville Police Department Capt. J.F. Cline handles, on average, three to four cases per week.
Both men said the most common reports of theft concern the use of credit cards.
"A lot of it is with credit cards," Wilson said. "You can use those things anywhere, and a lot of times ... in restaurants people hand [wait staff] your card and they walk away with it. Shortly thereafter, [victims] discover that 20 minutes later there was a charge for $50 or $100."
According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2009, credit card fraud accounted for 17 percent of all identity crimes in Georgia. A majority of credit card theft occurs on new accounts.
Cline advises residents not to use financial cards at locations where cards are imprinted on carbon paper. He also suggests customers be aware of using their debit card personal identification number within sight of others.
Wilson said most stolen financial information is used out of state, with the stolen data being used to make purchases online or over the phone.
"Those are real hard cases to follow because I'm only limited here as to what I can do," he said.
Once purchases are made, Wilson said suspects will have items shipped to an "empty house, empty apartment or even an empty business" using a shipping service that does not require a signature. After the package is dropped off, the person responsible for watching the drop-off location will retrieve the package.
Classes of theft
The FTC, which handles identity crimes in the U.S., breaks down data into eight categories - credit card fraud; government documents or benefits fraud; phone or utilities fraud; employment-related fraud; bank fraud; loan fraud; other identity theft; and attempted identity theft.
While oftentimes thieves are out-of-state or unknown suspects, Wilson said many times the suspects are people the victim knows
"It could be an ex-spouse, former stepchildren. They'll use their spouse's information to gain some type of service," he said.
Frequently victims discover problems when they file a tax return.
"People [are] going to file their taxes and all of a sudden their tax preparer looks at them and says, 'Someone's already filed.' I see more of that now that it's tax season," Wilson said.
In Georgia, the most frequent type of fraud involves government documents or benefits, accounting for 25 percent of identity crimes in 2009, according to the FTC.
With the popularity of social networking continuing to grow, Wilson said people often disclose personal information online, opening the door for thieves.
"[For instance], on Facebook, don't put the year with your birthday," he said. "Take your information off the computer."
Data may reflect that those more likely to use social networking and online tools - those ages 20 to 39 - are the most at-risk. In 2009, 49 percent of the state's identity crime victims fell into that age range.
Freedom of Information?
Those surfing the Internet may be stunned to find the amount of information floating around in cyberspace. But, what happens if that information falls into the wrong hands?
Citizens release information to businesses, doctors, banks, lawyers and even law enforcement with a startling degree of trust. Once personal details are given out, it is assumed those employed within those institutions will protect the information.
News stories in recent years have revealed banks and medical facilities dumping personal documents containing sensitive information.
Frequently, employees of companies use customer data for personal gain. In those cases, the suspect faces criminal charges.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, law enforcement reports must be released to news media. The Daily Tribune News receives daily incident and accident reports from the BCSO and CPD, along with the media intake report - or blotter. Those documents frequently contain full names, addresses, birthdates, phone numbers, and other details.
A cursory browse of the Internet reveals that two local news websites, who also receive the same information, post the documents in their entirety. A quick look through the documents will reveal everything from names and addresses to Social Security and insurance policy numbers.
While considered "public information" or "public record," the question becomes, "Whose responsibility is it to keep that information safe?"
BCSO Sgt. Jonathan Rogers said the department keeps an internal copy of reports but releases to the public and the media a "public copy," with the computer system automatically removing personal data.
"I'm doing this and getting paid and relying on you to do the journalistic work," Rogers said Friday. "The law requires me to release the book-in report. The only thing I'm required to remove is the Social Security number."
At CPD, a person requesting a copy of an incident or accident report must complete a form showing involvement in the incident or relationship to the person(s) involved, along with providing the case card given at the scene.
Cline said anything placed on a report falls under FOIA, but the burden of maintaining privacy falls to the news outlet. "You're responsible for maintaining the security of that."
The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics states, "Journalists should recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone's privacy."
According to Cline, "It wouldn't be very ethical on [a journalist's] part" to make readily available copies of law enforcement reports.
Unlike those who face criminal charges for identity theft, a news outlet who releases information contained within matters of "public record" is subject only to civil action.
Georgia Press Association Attorney David Hudson said in an e-mail this week if an incident report provided by law enforcement contains sensitive information, the media is free to use the information as it deems best.
"You might want to consider whether you deem it newsworthy to include all of that personal information," Hudson said. "There is nothing to ensure that the person identified might not claim an invasion of privacy with some of this information and file a lawsuit, even if the lawsuit has no merit.
"The test would be whether there is a 'public interest' sufficient to outweigh the individual's privacy interests."
Safeguarding against stealing
Individuals can take precautions to protect against identity theft.
Wilson suggests residents contact credit agencies - Experian, TransUnion and Equifax - to place a safeguard on their credit.
"Those who check credit, it will show this person has a safeguard and cause them to check further," he said
Likewise, Wilson urges individuals to check their credit report. "Check your credit at least twice a year; I recommend three times a year."
Wilson also speaks to local civic organizations on identity theft and how to protect personal information. He can be reached at 770-382-5050, ext. 6067.
For more information, visit the FTC's identity theft website at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/index.html.
The FTC offers the following tips to help minimize your risk of identity theft:
· Protect your Social Security number:
Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet or write your Social Security number on a check. Give your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary, and ask to use other types of identifiers. If your state uses your Social Security number as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number. Do the same if your health insurance company uses your Social Security number as your policy number.
· Treat your trash and mail carefully
To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information, always shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you're discarding, and credit offers you get in the mail. To opt out of receiving prescreened offers of credit in the mail, call: 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688). Note: You will be asked to provide your Social Security number, which the consumer reporting companies need to match you with your file.
Deposit your outgoing mail containing personally identifying information in post office collection boxes or at your local post office, rather than in an unsecured mailbox. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox. If you're planning to be away from home and can't pick up your mail, contact the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 or online at www.usps.gov, to request a vacation hold. The Postal Service will hold your mail at your local post office until you can pick it up or are home to receive it.
· Be on guard when using the Internet
The Internet can give you access to information, entertainment, financial offers, and countless other services but at the same time, it can leave you vulnerable to online scammers, identity thieves and more. For practical tips to help you be on guard against Internet fraud, secure your computer, and protect your personal information, visit www.OnGuardOnline.gov.
· Select intricate passwords
Place passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or your phone number, a series of consecutive numbers, or a single word that would appear in a dictionary. Combinations of letters, numbers, and special characters make the strongest passwords. When opening new accounts, you may find that many businesses still ask for your mother's maiden name. Find out if you can use a password instead.
· Verify a source before sharing information
Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or on the Internet unless you've initiated the contact and are sure you know who you're dealing with. Identity thieves are clever, and may pose as representatives of banks, Internet service providers (ISPs), and even government agencies to get people to reveal their Social Security number, mother's maiden name, account numbers, and other identifying information. Before you share any personal information, confirm that you are dealing with a legitimate organization. Check an organization's website by typing its URL in the address line, rather than cutting and pasting it. Many companies post scam alerts when their name is used improperly. Or call customer service using the number listed on your account statement or in the telephone book.
· Store information in secure locations
Keep your personal information in a secure place at home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help, or are having work done in your house. Share your personal information only with those family members who have a legitimate need for it. Keep your purse or wallet in a safe place at work; do the same with copies of administrative forms that have your sensitive personal information. Ask about information security procedures in your workplace or at businesses, doctor's offices or other institutions that collect your personally identifying information. Find out who has access to your personal information and verify that it is handled securely. Ask about the disposal procedures for those records as well. Find out if your information will be shared with anyone else. If so, ask how your information can be kept confidential.