Be on the lookout for identity theft red flags

Posted Friday, Aug. 29, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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As identity fraud gets trickier, consumers need to be even more aware of red flags.

For example, two employees of the Star-Telegram were sent final bills from one of their utilities, even though they had not terminated their service. Both received bills for new service from the utilities with someone else’s name on the account.

One of the employees also had her homestead exemption taken off her property taxes when the Tarrant Appraisal District got notice from the post office of a change of address to Virginia. She hadn’t moved.

Both are red flags for identity theft, said Eva Velasquez, president and chief executive officer of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a national nonprofit service based in San Diego that focuses on educating and counseling victims.

“There is a strong potential that her personal information has been compromised and someone else is trying to monetize it,” Velasquez said. “These are two red flags that need to be paid attention to.”

While both incidents were fixed with a simple phone call, they could represent a more serious underlying problem, Velasquez said.

“ID theft is an engrossing problem,” she said. “A recent report by the Bureau of Justice said there were 16.6 million victims in 2012, or 7 percent of the population. Another report said ID theft happens every two seconds in this country.”

ID theft takes on many forms — tax, medical, government benefits, financial — and the victims have to sort it out even though they are often unaware of the problem, she said.

“People often take care of the little problems like this and don’t realize there can be a bigger issue behind them,” Velasquez said. “But studies show early detection is a big part of mitigating damage and takes less time to clean up.”

TXU, one of the utilities involved, has a fraud management team to handle such customer problems, said Lauren Little, a spokeswoman for the retail electric provider. TXU customers who suspect such a problem with their accounts can call 877-460-7060 or go to www.txu.com/fraud.

“Criminals are getting more tactical in finding room for ID fraud within the electric market,” she said. “And getting a final bill is the first red flag.”

In most cases, the fraud comes from someone setting up a bill in your name at someone else’s address. It’s relatively simple because you usually only need a name, an address and a phone number to set up an account.

The criminal can get the service for months, if not years, before a collection agency catches on. You get the ding on your credit report while the criminal is long gone.

One Star-Telegram employee faced another billing problem. She received a final bill from CoServ, an electric cooperative, and then a welcome packet with another name using her address.

Turns out it was simply operator error, according to a CoServ spokeswoman. A CoServ representative mistyped one digit of the address of a new account, causing a chain reaction that opened a new account under a different name.

TXU’s Little said another utility fraud is the Green Dot scam.

A fraudster will call you with a fake utility caller ID and say you owe on your utility bill and need to pay right away. If you don’t have the money, the scammer will recommend going to CVS or Walgreens and getting a Green Dot — a prepaid Visa or MasterCard debit card — to settle the account.

Don’t buy into it, Little warns. If a utility calls, hang up and call back to make sure you owe on your account.

Losing a homestead exemption because of a forwarding address is common, said Jeff Law, chief appraiser for the Tarrant Appraisal District. But in his 16 years on the job, he said, he had never heard of losing it because of a fraudulent forwarding address.

“We get thousands of return mail bills sent to us from the tax assessor every year, but the vast majority of them have no problems with them,” he said. “We use them to go through and update our files.”

TAD also uses two systems, Accurint and the National Change of Address system, to keep its files updated and make sure the homestead exemption is properly given, Law said.

The homeowner in question said she realized there was a problem when her tax assessment skyrocketed. She protested the assessment in June when she learned that TAD had received a change of address to Virginia and had dropped her exemption. She reapplied for the exemption.

But Velasquez, of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said that could be just the beginning of her problems. When red flags occur, she said, people should contact the resource center at 800-400-5530 and speak with an adviser. The free consultation will provide strategies, letter templates and websites to help protect your identity.

Last year, the center helped 10,300 consumers clear up identity issues, Velasquez said. It also has extensive information on its website, www.idtheftcenter.org.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to protect your identity.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

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