Criminals have kept apace with the growth of technology just like everyone else, and the average person is left wondering how to protect themselves against a thief that can pick their pocket from behind a computer screen halfway across the world.
Lt. Mike Whitlow of the Fayetteville Police Department spends a lot of his time pursuing cases of identity fraud and identity theft, and he also takes the time to educate people on what these criminals are up to and how to protect yourself from them.
Recently Whitlow was joined by Special Agent Darryl Greenberg with the United States Postal Inspection Service to talk to a group of local business owners about this issue. They touched on concerns specifically effecting small business owners and also gave a lot of information that can help individuals.
Whitlow takes these sorts of crimes seriously and is proud to say the Fayetteville P.D., along with the Fayette County Sheriff's Office, pursue them aggressively whereas authorities in many nearby counties aren't so eager to do so.
The sophistication of the I.D. thief can be pretty remarkable, Whitlow says, with multi-layered organizations running fraud operations.
"There's always been people who commit fraud, that's been true for thousands of years," Whitlow explained, "but as an occupation, that's a fairly new thing. Most of these people today who commit fraud, that's all they do, and they're good at it."
Whitlow said one of the biggest trends now is counterfeit check schemes which use homeless people as expendable pawns.
"What they do is they go to a homeless shelter or out on the streets in Atlanta and they recruit homeless people to come cash counterfeit checks," Whitlow said. "Of course they're recruting cannon fodder... people that are going to either be successful, or they're going to get caught. The managers in these organizations couldn’t care less, either way. They don't lose any money if these people don't cash a check."
Whitlow explained that the organizations are carefully designed with layers of managers, recruiters, drivers, and runners (the homeless people that end up bearing the risk).
"The managers know everybody, but the recruiters don't know the managers, the recruiters don't know the drivers, the drivers don't know the homeless people and the homeless people don't know anybody. It's very hard to catch these folks," Whitlow said. "These are impressive organizations from a business standpoint."
That's the challenge for Whitlow and other law enforcement. Identity theft can be so lucrative that the "bad guys," as Whitlow calls them, can make a career of it. They're investing as much time staying ahead of the law as the law is trying to catch them.
Whitlow said local law enforcement has learned through mistakes how to better stop these scams. By monitoring patterns, they've been able to find where these homeless "runners" get dropped off. The runners will then walk to whatever target bank to cash their fraudulent checks and walk back to the drop off point. Whitlow said that by going to these known drop off points law enforcement have been more successful in catching perpetrators than by responding to the banks, as they did at first.
Whitlow said he has personally been working on a case for three years that has slowly worked farther up the "food chain" toward the managers of an operation.
These sorts of schemes are just one among many, and Whitlow has all sorts of stories of types of scammers that, if nothing else, showed a dedication to their craft.
"There are as many schemes out there and variations on fraud as you can imagine," Whitlow said.
Whitlow suggested it may not be a coincidence that violent crime rates are down across the country.
"The bad guys have figured out I don't have to confront anybody, I can do this anonymously. I can get on a computer and commit fraud all day long and the sky's the limit," Whitlow said. "Most bank robberies only get $3-$5,000. With credit card fraud you can get as much as you want if you're smart enough."
On the plus side, agencies in Georgia that do pursue fraud cases get to use some laws Whitlow feels are among the "most broad laws ever written."
If a bad guy victimizes a Fayetteville citizen from anywhere in the country, the Fayetteville P.D. can charge them, arrest them, and have them sentenced here in Fayette County even if they'd never stepped foot in the state of Georgia.
"That's an awesome law," Whitlow said.
Unfortunately it's just about impossible to be "off the grid" these days, so most people are vulnerable to fraud in some way. Whitlow and Greenberg, who investigates fraud cases that involve the mail system, have some advice for the average person.
"The most important thing an individual or business can do to protect you from identity fraud," Whitlow said, "Is to monitor your accounts."
As simple as it sounds, most people likely do not get online daily to monitor their accounts and ensure all transactions are valid. Whitlow's wife monitors his like a hawk, he said, to the point that she called before he could get to his car after lunch one day asking why it all off a sudden cost him twenty bucks to eat at Chick-Fil-A.
That level of monitoring may not be feasible for everyone, but daily checks are a great idea.
Whitlow also suggested all documents containing personal or financial information be shredded, and that's only the first step. A typical shredder that results in long strips of paper isn't quite good enough, as bad guys will grab those shreddings straight out of your trash can and carefully piece them together. Either get your hands on a micro shredder, which turns paper into confetti, or take your pile of shreddings and separate them into different bags and throw them away in different weeks.
Just as criminals can find shredded treasure in your trash can, they can pull pure gold from your mailbox. The best option is to have a P.O. Box for important mail and bills, particularly for businesses.
If you do try to send a check or anything else containing personal information in your mail box, don't raise the red flag.
"You know what we call that red flag?" Greenberg said. "A steal me flag. What kind of stuff do you mail out? Your checks! It is so easy for me to take a normal handwritten check, dip it in brake fluid, dry it out, and write a check for anything I want to. Don't stick your red flag up."
Greenberg particularly endorsed the idea of having a P.O. Box, saying his personal mail box only receives junk mail, while everything "important" goes to his P.O. Box. That would still make it vulnerable to the occasional nefarious postal worker, but it reduces the chances of mail ending up in a criminal's hands significantly.
There are a few other basic tips. Don't give personal information out over the phone.
"Banks do not call you for your personal information. If a bank wants to talk to you they're going to ask you to come into the branch," Whitlow explained. "Do not give out personal information over the phone, ever."
The same goes for e-mail. Many scammers will pretend to be banks looking for account information from you to resolve some imaginary problem. Don't respond, no bank would make that request by e-mail.
Greenberg recommended freezing credit for children and the elderly that have no need for it. He said this can be done with a simple call to Equifax, thus preventing any criminal from opening a line of credit in their name.
Other scams can occur in person, and Whitlow said if someone asks for help to change a tire or to get some gas you should call 911 for them.
"We do not mind changing tires or taking people to the gas station to get gas, we do it all the time. That's our job. You're putting yourself in harm’s way if you do that. Don't get out of your car to try to help somebody," Whitlow explained. "We all grew up in a generation where you could do that. You cannot do that anymore."
These tips won't ensure freedom from identity theft, but they will offer some protection. In the meantime, the Fayetteville P.D. and the Sheriff's Office will continue to pursue these shadowy bad guys.