Identity theft an ongoing problem for Florida residents, officials say


The caller claimed to be from the IRS.

The consumer owed the government a lot of money, the caller said, and then instructed the person to look out the window to see the police car waiting to take them to jail if they didn’t make an immediate payment over the phone. Sure enough, a police car was parked in front of the house.

But the call was a scam – one of many being perpetrated by identity thieves seeking to extract personal information from unsuspecting consumers. And the story was just one of many shared by government officials at an identity theft symposium held recently at the St. Johns County administrative offices in St. Augustine. Sponsored by the office of Congressman Ron DeSantis, the session brought together representatives from the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Post Office, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the IRS, Homeland Security and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office to offer local residents tips on how to avoid becoming an identity theft victim.

“These people are evil,” IRS representative Kimberly Lappin said about identity thieves like those behind the police car scam. “They call in a police incident to the house across the street so you’ll see the police car out in front.”

In reality, Lappin said, the IRS would never make such threatening demands or ask for credit card or other personal information over the phone.

“If it’s regarding a taxpayer service, (the consumer) would initiate the call, the IRS wouldn’t,” she said. “And we would never ask for your social security number or other personal information because we already have it.”

No shortage of scams

From stealing personal information from homeowners’ trash to filing someone’s tax return as part of a money laundering scheme, there is no shortage of identity theft scams, government officials said.

“The FTC receives 3 million complaints a year, and identity theft is the #2 complaint behind debt collectors,” FTC congressional liaison Derick Rill told symposium attendees. “And Florida is the #1 state for identity theft complaints.”

Officials ran through a laundry list of current popular scams, such as the family emergency scam. A person – often a senior – receives a call or email purporting to be from a family member. Depending upon the particular scam, this supposed family member claims to have been either mugged or arrested in a foreign country and needs the person to wire them money immediately.

“We had one case where the caller actually knew the name of the family dog,” Rill said. “They got it off of Facebook.”

Then there are the romance scams, where identity thieves enter into long-term online “relationships” with unsuspecting victims, who begin sending money that is rarely recovered. And who could forget the “You’ve won a foreign lottery” scam?

“Foreign lotteries are illegal – period,” U.S. Postal Inspector Adam Schaefer said. “You cannot win a foreign lottery while living in the United States.”

Also popular with identity thieves: installing credit card “skimmers” on gas station pumps to capture credit card information.

“I’ve had my credit card compromised multiple times,” said Jeffrey Booth, senior special agent with the U.S. Secret Service in Jacksonville. “Fortunately, financial institutions are relatively protected.”

Online purchases made with a credit card also carry some protection. “If you buy something online and you’re a victim of identity theft, you are protected by law,” Rill said. “You are not responsible for more than $50 if the fraudulent charges are caught within 60 days.”

Preventing identity theft

So what can local residents do to protect themselves from identity theft? Officials offered the following tips:

•Don’t send money to someone you’ve never met or to a caller claiming to be a family member.

•If you get a threatening phone call purporting to be from the IRS or other agency, hang up.

•Don’t give out personal information such as social security numbers, PIN numbers or account numbers over the phone.

•Check your credit card bills, bank statements, and other statements regularly for fraudulent charges.

•Shred everything, including credit-card offers that could be used to open an account in your name.

•Avoid sharing too much personal info on social media (“Identity thieves use it to build a profile on you,” the IRS’s Lappin said).

Rill also reminded attendees that every citizen is entitled to receive one free credit report a year from each of the three credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. “If you stagger them, you can receive a free credit report every four months,” he said.

For those who find that they have been victimized by identity thieves, officials recommended:

•Visit or to file a report and request an initial fraud alert

•Notify the credit reporting agencies

•Alert local law enforcement

•Consider requesting an extended fraud alert to monitor your credit activity (requires a police report)

•Consider implementing a credit freeze, which restricts access to your credit report and makes it harder for identity thieves to open accounts in your name

“The earlier you catch fraud,” Rill advised, “the easier it is to clean up.”