Diving for Identity: A Region 8 News investigation

By Josh Harvison - bio | email

JONESBORO/POCAHONTAS, AR (KAIT) – Officials with the Law Enforcement Training Academy at Black River Technical College told Region 8 News in February that it will offer new courses in identity theft assistance next fall. This is in response to the overwhelming number of identity theft cases law enforcement agencies report every year. According to Javelin Research, more than 10-million Americans became victims of identity theft and fraud in 2009.

"I know the police get called a lot on identity thefts and hopefully we can train them to get in there and help with the procedure," said Carl Dyer, an instructor in the law enforcement program.

"It's definitely a concern now. It seems to be happening more often just because of the internet and lots of people are getting credit cards that don't normally get credit cards," said Dyer. "There's an increased likelihood with the amount of credit cards and offers out there and the internet that people are going to become victims of identity theft."

Most identity theft cases are handled by the Arkansas Attorney General's Office. Scroll down to learn how to protect yourself from becoming a victim.

"The best thing that a person can do is to shred their credit card statements. Make sure that if they do have a credit card, they cut it up or put it through their shredder if their shredder can handle it," said Dyer.

A Region 8 News investigation of several homes discovered several pieces of personal information any criminal would love to have. In early February, we searched through five garbage bags pulled from homes and apartment complexes in Jonesboro. Three bags were taken from apartments. Two bags were pulled from homes.

"I don't think they realize what they're throwing away whenever they put things in the garbage. I think they just kind of think it magically disappears, and shredding it or even if they're going to mail a credit card payment, they probably need to put it in the mail collection box instead of putting it in their normal mail box," said Dyer.

"They don't think about it. They throw it in the trash and they think it goes away. Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. It could land in the wrong hands by anyone that's willing to sift through your garbage. It's there available to them. If you throw it away and they chose to pick it up, that information gets transported to who knows where," said Steve Shults, Director of the Law Enforcement Training Academy.

"Identity theft is becoming a more prominent issue in the law enforcement realm so we feel like we need to train our new officers to assist people when that situation occurs," said Shults. "Identity theft is really not a very new crime because used to we had check forgers, and that's a form of identity theft. You're signing someone else's name. You're stealing their identity. You're using their identity to forge a check, but in the computer age you can do so much more and do so much more more quickly."

In the first bag we pulled, we discovered phone numbers, a person's name and address and what appeared to be a balance on a credit card or bank account.

The second bag turned up a receipt with the last four numbers of a credit card.

The third bag turned up potentially the most harmful information. We found an entire Citi credit card statement with the full account number, customer name and mailing address. The statement also included the remaining credit balance on the card. If a criminal were to get a hold of that information, they would be able to purchase $5,000 worth of items with that identity.

An entire cell phone contact list was found in the fourth bag, which also had tons of personal information a person tried to shred by hand.

The fifth bag turned up no personal information.

"It's amazing. It's amazing. There's lots of information there that a would-be criminal could use to take advantage of anybody and they could ruin their credit score or charge an outrageous amount on their credit card," said Dyer. "It's amazing that sort of thing is in people's trash cans.

We then took the information to Dyer and Shults to get their reaction.

"You see you've got a blank check here. You can basically fill one of those out for however much you needed and take it and cash it probably anywhere. Then you've got the account number which you could probably call the credit card company, Citi in this case, and tell them that you've lost your card and you need another card," said Dyer.

"It had a complete list of over 200 names of this person's contact list from one of his websites, with their phone numbers and contact information. That wasn't really possible in the past unless you hand wrote something like that out and that's not likely," said Shults.

There are ways to protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft.

"Identity theft is totally preventable. One of your trash bag people there attempted to shred his information by hand and he had pieces that are about that big and it took me about a minute to piece them back together," said Shults. "If you don't use your full name on a lot of your credit cards and so forth, if you use your first initial and last name, when you use that credit card, you're going to sign your entire name. If they steal it, they won't know what first name to sign if you just use a first initial."

Dyer said putting a password on every computer you use would deter criminals from harming your identity online. If possible, prevent "dumpster diving", use a P.O. Box if possible for mail, memorize your social security number, monitor your bank statements for unusual activity and keep all credit card numbers and credit card company phone numbers in a separate location.

"Contact your three major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union. Contact them. Have them put a hold on your account. After you get your police report number, make sure that you give the number to the credit card bureau that way they can put a flag on your account and watch your account for you," said Dyer.

"It's not only garbage. These people are throwing away valuable information. Once you throw it away, you have less of an expectation of privacy so it's something you've discarded," said Shults.

Under the Federal Truth in Lending Act, credit cards are safer to use than debit cards," Shults said.

"You're only liable for up to $50 on a credit card theft if you should have your credit card stolen. On the other hand, if you use a debit card, they can keep using that until they've exhausted your complete account," said Shults.

For individuals who have become victims of identity theft, the Arkansas Attorney General's Office offers identity theft passports if a crime is committed in their name.

"They'll run up huge debt. That's a big threat. Your credit rating can go down to nothing and they can actually steal your information and commit a crime in your name. Then if the police pull you over for speeding and your name pops up after they've stolen your identity, they may want to haul you to jail," said Shults.

"You got people who have been taking advantage of other people for a long time now and identity theft is probably the easiest way they can do it. It's probably one of the easiest crimes to perpetrate out there," said Dyer.

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