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Identity theft #1 national consumer complaint

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued its annual list of consumer complaints, identity theft topping the national list. Identity theft occurs when someone uses personally identifying information, such as a name, Social Security or credit ...

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued its annual list of consumer complaints, identity theft topping the national list.

Identity theft occurs when someone uses personally identifying information, such as a name, Social Security or credit card number without permission to commit fraud or other crimes.

Identity theft reports accounted for 36 percent of the 674,354 complaints received in 2006.

Minnesota, which ranked 33rd in the number of complaints received, reported 2,872 identity theft complaints by consumers.

According to recently released statistics from the Hubbard County Sheriff's Office, 83 forgery and fraud incidents were reported in 2006.

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The crime takes many forms, according to Brian Goldammer, investigator for the Park Rapids Police Department.

Consumers may be contacted for a shopping spree card, an extended warranty, or receive notification they've won a drawing or are eligible for a prize, he said. The "notifications" may arrive via mail or e-mail.

"You've won! You're eligible!" should ignite fright - not delight.

The notifications are geared around gaining personal information under false pretenses, known as pretexting.

The consumer is asked to share his Social Security number, credit card information or bank checking and savings account numbers to proceed.

When a pretexter has the information, he makes a call to your financial institution, pretending to be someone with authorized access to the account. He may claim he's forgotten his checkbook and needs information about the account.

In this way, the pretexter may be able to obtain other personal information, such as back and credit card account numbers, information in your credit report and the existence and size of your savings and investment portfolios, according to the FTC.

"Identity thieves are doing it because it works," Goldammer said. They tend to prey on the vulnerable, especially the elderly. "People who are financially stricken see it as a way out."

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A couple of years ago, a local resident was told he'd won the Canadian lottery and could claim $20,000 and a new Cadillac, Goldammer recalled. But to process this, approximately $2,500 was to be wired - four times.

The request to wire money should send up a "big red flag," Goldammer said. "Once money has been wired, it's gone. There's no way to trace it."

Skilled identity thieves may use a variety of methods to obtain personal information, according to the FTC. These may include:

n Dumpster diving - rummaging through trash looking for bills or other papers with personal identification on them. (If you receive a credit card in the mail, cut it into pieces before tossing it.)

n Skimming - stealing credit/debit card numbers by using a special storage device when processing a card.

n Phishing - pretending to be a financial institution or company and sending spam or pop-up messages asking for personal information.

n Changing your address - diverting billing statements to another location by completing a change of address form.

n Old-fashioned stealing - Taking wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; and new checks or tax information.

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Many consumers learn their identity has been stolen after the damage has been done, according to the FTC.

A collection agency calls about overdue debts never incurred. You apply for a mortgage or car loan and learn your credit history is holding up the process. Or you get something in the mail about an apartment you've never rented, a house never bought or a job never held.

The FTC recommends monthly monitoring of accounts and bank statements. Check your credit report on a regular basis. Repairing damage caused by identity thieves may take time and money, according to the FTC.

Goldammer recommends use of a debit card, as opposed to a checkbook.

"If it seems too good to be true, it probably is," Goldammer said. "When in doubt, check with law enforcement, Better Business Bureau or the bank. Take a pessimistic approach. Take a deep breath and look at the document.

"If you feel a need to verify legitimacy, odds are, it's not. If you doubt, don't," Goldammer advises.

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