June 14, 2006 - It must be his lucky day. A man checks his inbox, and out of the blue, he's received an e-mail from no less than the finance minister of Nigeria.

There has been an unexpected crisis in the banking system of Sub-Saharan Africa, and he needs to move a large portion of his nation's treasury to a secure place. He has chosen this man and his trusty American bank, seemingly at random but in complete faith, to entrust with $11.6 million dollars. In exchange for his assistance, the finance minister will graciously allow him to keep 20 percent of the sum.

But he must act urgently. The finance minister needs his name, date of birth, social security number, and bank account number immediately.

This last request rattles the man to skepticism, because he's learned by now never to trust anyone offering him large sums of money. As he moves the e-mail into his junk box, he feels confident that the finance minister of Nigeria wouldn't pin his nation's hopes of financial salvation to a randomly chosen e-mail address.

While this doesn't seem like the most graceful attempt at identity theft, sadly, such foreign money offers lead to eight percent of identity theft cases in the United States, said Mike Schuh, crime prevention specialist with the Oro Valley Police Department.

Unfortunately, identity theft can't always be foiled with a teaspoon of common sense. Identity theft is defined as using someone's personal information for a fraudulent or deceptive purpose, and this particular crime has grown up to become the dark side of the internet lurking in the shadows of the information age. As it becomes increasingly necessary to spread sensitive information across the internet, as social security numbers become more important than names, and as all the information needed to ruin someone's finances sits in their mailbox every morning, the identity theft epidemic appears increasingly unstoppable.

Yet Mike Schuh believes identity theft can be overcome if people take the time and effort to protect themselves. On June 10, the Oro Valley Police Department crime prevention specialist gave a presentation on identity theft protection in the council chambers of Oro Valley Town Hall. The event was organized by the Oro Valley Fraternal Order of Police Associate.

"The Internet took identity theft into the future, and now there's more and more opportunity of this to get out of control. People need to learn how their identity can be stolen in order to protect themselves," Schuh said.

Arizona reported more identity theft cases per capita in 2006 than any other state, and the Phoenix metropolitan area had nearly 200 reports of identity theft for every 100,000 people, more than any other major U.S. city, Schuh said.

However, Schuh said this is more likely a result of identity theft awareness in Arizona than it is indicative of any particular vulnerability of Arizonans.

"Arizona has a very diverse population, and we have more people reporting. Here we have education occurring about how someone might fleece your I.D.," Schuh said.

Nationwide, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 250,000 complaints of identity theft in 2005, Schuh said. Identity theft is a class four felony in Arizona, and the state legislature passed several laws singling out identity theft as a crime separate from other types of fraud.

Schuh said the first line of defense against identity theft is to simply pay close attention to credit card bills, bank statements, and credit reports for anything out of the ordinary. A credit report from all three credit agencies - Experian, Transunion, and Equifax - if available free once a year, and Schuh recommends looking over all three at the same time because each company is focused on a different region of the United States, and someone could be the victim of an identity thief based across the country.

"It's the folks that don't monitor anything that really end up hurt by this," Schuh said.

He also recommends that retirees check their social security report every year, because it shows a list of employers and a work history that should end upon retirement. If any work history is listed after retirement, that person will know someone has been using his or her social security number.

Similarly, Schuh recommends parents check the reports of their children, a favorite target of identity theft. Identity thieves love to use a newborn child's social security number because it will probably be years before the misuse is discovered, he said.

"One girl found out when she turned 16 that she was $25,000 in debt. It cost her family $12,000 to clear her name because of all the court fees and attorney's fees they had to pay," Schuh said, adding that the average cost to an identity theft victim is about $1,500 depending on how quickly the fraud is discovered.

He said another important aspect of identity theft is protecting sensitive information. Identity thieves are known to steal purses that are left unguarded in grocery store carts and to even pickpocket men's wallets. He suggests that women not carry around their children's birth certificates and that no one carry around their social security card because these documents will allow an identity thief to get a driver's license from the Motor Vehicle Division and really open the floodgates of fraud.

Rather than sending bills out through an unprotected mail box, Schuh recommends sending mail through post office mailboxes because identity thieves are known to steal mail right out of mailboxes late at night. It is also important not to leave sensitive information in an unlocked car, he said.

"In Oro Valley, some people think we have no crime. They'll leave all sorts of information in an unlocked car at night," Schuh said.

Schuh recommends shredding all documents that need to be thrown away, and credit card offers in particular, with a crosscut shredder. Identity thieves have been known to tape torn credit card offers back together and send them in with a note of apology, and even send along the change-of-address form so the victim never sees the fraudulent credit card statement, he said.

For larger shredding jobs, Tucson-based Shred-It will make a house call with a truck equipped with a heavy-duty shredder and will dispose of 10 boxes of documents for a $50 fee.

"Because of identity theft, we have a lot more elderly people calling us out to their homes," said Kevin Heal, sales coordinator for Shred-It.

For computer safety, Schuh said the key is to only provide sensitive information to reputable dealers with secure websites. He also recommends using passwords that are difficult to hack. He said consumers should be mindful of the information the provide in online auctions because these sites lead to 12 percent of identity theft cases.

Despite the dangers, the threat of identity theft shouldn't cause people to be paranoid, and it isn't necessary to center your life on thwarting identity thieves in order to not be a victim, Schuh said. The most important thing is to be aware of how identity thieves operate and where they are looking for information so you can take a few precautionary steps that would send an identity thief looking for a more vulnerable victim.

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