Community leaders offer solutions to fight credit card fraud

Monday, September 22, 2008

With 800 identity theft cases reported in Cape Girardeau since 2007, police detective Hank Voelker believes the crime has gotten out of hand.

One type of identity theft is credit card theft, with most cases he investigates totaling about $8,000 each.

"Credit card theft doesn't discriminate and affects people of all age groups above 17 years," Voelker said. "Theft fuels people's addictions. Since they may not want anyone to know they are addicted to Internet pornography, gambling or drugs, they'll just steal someone else's identity and no one may ever find out."

To help victims restore their identity, Voelker recently created the Cape Girardeau Police Department's identity theft and credit card fraud packet.

"Most people are pretty concerned when they come in to file a report," Voelker said. "This makes it easier for a more efficient investigation."

The packet includes information to help victims obtain financial records related to fraudulent accounts. Victims then can provide those records to law enforcement officials who cannot conduct an investigation for prosecution without such information.

Also included in the packet are answers to questions commonly asked by fraud victims, steps a victim can take and a test to gauge how susceptible a person is to identity theft.

To prevent credit card theft, Voelker advises everyone to obtain a credit report every six months.

"Some people may not realize they have been a victim of credit card fraud until it has already happened," Voelker said. "By getting the credit report, people can make sure nothing has happened that is out of the ordinary."

Chris Thetford, an investigator with the Better Business Bureau office in St. Louis, said bank account holders should check their information online on a regular basis. Citing the Identity Fraud Survey Report released by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and Javelin Strategy & Research, Thetford said nearly half of all identity theft is perpetrated by friends, neighbors, in-home employees, family members or relatives.

Building on that, Voelker said that cases "where a grandchild will steal his grandmother's identity or a mom will steal her kid's information to set up credit card accounts is not uncommon in this area."

For those who are victims of credit card fraud, Voelker said certain steps should be taken in addition to contacting the police department. Those include reporting fraud to major credit bureaus, calling all creditors where the victim holds accounts, writing a letter to credit bureaus and completing the Federal Trade Commission's ID Theft Affidavit to clear up one's records.

If a credit card is stolen or lost, most credit card companies have a toll-free, 24-hour phone service. Federal law states that once credit card fraud is reported, the card bearer no long holds responsibility for unauthorized charges. Under federal law, maximum liability is $50 per card.

While credit card theft affects people of most age groups, Voelker notices a rise in credit card thefts once Southeast Missouri State University begins the fall semester.

"College students may go to the bar or another large room and lay their purse or wallet down on the table without watching those possessions closely," Voelker said. "But what they don't realize then is people are more concerned with only obtaining a credit card instead of money. Because what's 30 bucks compared to thousands of dollars that can be obtained by using a stolen credit card?"

Southeast Missouri State University has partnered with CashCourse to provide information to students regarding financial literacy topics, including credit card theft prevention.

In addition to that partnership, Southeast has created a channel on its student portal that provides links to Web resources regarding financial literacy. Included in the portal is a channel titled "Financial Responsibility." This provides links to CashCourse, the Missouri Department of Higher Education, MyMoney.gov and stopping credit card offers.

And during its financial responsibility presentations at on-campus new student recruitment and high school events, one of the issues covered is credit card usage, according to Debbie Below, assistant vice president of enrollment management and director of admissions at Southeast.

Southeast financial aid director Karen Walker said the university's institutional practice is not to allow companies to solicit credit card applications within the University Center nor permit employees to disseminate credit card information on a lender's behalf.

"College students need to have an awareness that these credit card issues do exist and that it is important to regularly review their account activity," Walker said. "There is a lot of media attention, as you know, given to encouraging people to check their credit reports to alert them to potential fraudulent activity."

bblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 137

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