Identity theft has become the number one reason for consumer complaints, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And identity bandits victimize as many as 700,000 Americans each year.
Barb Nesler, security officer for Montgomery Bank, which has 12 branches in Missouri, including branches in Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Chaffee and Sikeston, said she gets about five reports of identity theft every month.
"There's a lot of fishing going on," she said. "It's a big thing. People trying to get other people's Social Security number and other types of identification. It's not just dumpster diving anymore. It's getting more sophisticated ... computers have really opened it up."
Nesler said a variety of personal information can be stolen, and the elderly are frequent victims of identity theft because thieves pose as bank officials and ask them to verify account and pin numbers over the phone.
"By the time these people realize they have been victims of fraud and contact us, we rush to close accounts and set up new ones," said Nesler.
Charlotte Unterreiner, cashier and comptroller at Capaha Bank in Cape Girardeau, serves as the bank's security officer, and there have been two cases of identity theft so far this year.
"Usually a person will come to the bank and tell us about the problem," she said. "Then we guide them through the process of protecting their ID. We tell them to contact the three main credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion), and we guide them to www.consumer.gov/idtheft where they also report the crime."
Nesler said she informs victims how to get free credit reports and how to closely monitor them for suspicious activity.
"We deal with police, prosecutors and postal inspectors, because a lot of ID fraud occurs from mail being stolen," said Nesler. "People should not ever put their Social Security number on checks."
Olivia (last name withheld by request) lives in Cape Girardeau, and it will take more than $1,000 to clear her name.
"That's what MCI tells me," she said. "I didn't run up that phone bill, and I never had an account with MCI. I finally had a lawyer send them a letter, and we're waiting for a reply."
Her identity theft nightmare began last May when she went to a local bank to apply for a personal loan. She was denied the loan because the bank said she had bad credit. The bank gave Olivia a number to call for a free credit report. When the report arrived, she noticed she had delinquent accounts with two phone companies -- MCI and SBC/Ameritech.
"I had never opened those accounts," she said. "MCI said I owe over $1,000 and SBC said I owe almost $100. I first called MCI and they said they had my name and Social Security number on an account that was open from October 2002 to October 2003."
On Aug. 11, Olivia went to the Cape Girardeau Police Department and filed a complaint.
Jason Selzer, a public information officer with the Cape Girardeau Police Department, said 35 reports of identity theft have been filed with the department from January to mid-September. Nineteen of those victims have been women.
"There is a report from December of last year that I think people should know about," said Selzer. "A woman received an email reportedly from her bank. It said her account was temporarily closed, and she needed to log in to a certain site with her Social Security and pin numbers.
"She did it and someone got into her bank account. Fraudulent Web sites are made to look just like a person's real bank Web site," said Selzer. "You can lose money if you're not careful."