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Identity Theft: Silent Kidnapping

No one is immune to this growing white collar crime.

Lewis Carroll's heroine Alice, during her adventures through Wonderland, told the Caterpillar, "I can't explain myself, I'm afraid sir, because I'm not myself you see." More than 100 people gathered Jan. 19 in an effort to prevent that from happening to them.

Seated in the auditorium of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, they had come to learn how they could protect themselves from being kidnapped — not physically but financially, emotionally and characteristically. They came to learn about identity theft.

"You will not and cannot be free of the risk of becoming a victim of this crime. The only thing you can do is try to mitigate your exposure," said Carla Besosa, security specialist, Federal Credit Union, supporting the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

"This has been going on for a very long time. It's just that now we have a name for it — identity theft," she told the crowd composed of young and old of both sexes. "In many cases the mitigation is just using common sense."

Hosted by the Alexandria Police Foundation, in partnership with the Masonic Memorial, the free seminar had four experts describe how the residents can protect themselves from falling victim to a crime that can rob them of themselves — and what to do if it does happen.

"We are very fortunate here in Alexandria to have a police department so dedicated to protecting our citizens. You only need to turn on the news any given day to hear and see just how fortunate we are," said Shawn P. McLaughlin, Foundation chairman, in opening the two-hour seminar.

Formed in 2002 to assist Alexandria police officers, the Foundation provides resources "in support of initiatives which improve officer performance, morale and effectiveness." To spotlight that effort, Officer Michael Sprague rode into the auditorium on the department's new "Segway," recently purchased with Foundation funds.

"When police dogs retire, their handlers are responsible for all their care including health care as they get older. We didn't think that was fair so we have undertaken providing funds for the care of those dogs," McLaughlin said.

JOINING BESOSA on the panel of experts were Alexandria Police Sergeant Steven Carr, supervisor, Computer and Financial Crimes Unit, Criminal Investigative Section; Alexandria Detective Charles Pak, a member of the U.S. Secret Service Metro Area Fraud Task Force and the department's SWAT team; and Matthew Britsch, special agent, United States Secret Service, Asset Forfeiture Branch.

Serving as moderator for the panel's presentation was Earl Cook, deputy chief and 27-year veteran, Alexandria Police Department. He currently commands the Investigations Bureau.

"WE DECIDED years ago to expand into white collar crime and identity theft is just that. It is growing nationwide," he said.

"These cases get very complicated very quickly. Often it takes six months or more to bring them to prosecution. We deal with all types of theft and fraud," Carr told the audience.

"Identity theft is escalating and don't expect it to come down. There is no golden blanket we can lay over you to protect you," he said.

Those between the ages of 18 and 29 account for the highest percentage of victims, according to Carr. "If you have children just be aware that they are not as street smart as adults. They are more trusting and will divulge information to strangers more readily," he said.

Carr also cited the elderly as particularly vulnerable to identity theft. He attributed that to their more trusting nature and, often, their gullibility to scams that extract personal information from them.

Pak explained to the audience, "Identity theft is defined as theft of your identity with intent to defraud and use without authorization." It uses information that is not available to the general public such as social security numbers, bank ID numbers, and credit card numbers.

"Virginia statutes against identity theft apply to both stealing the identity of persons living or dead," he said. "When I investigate cases I look for a variety of factors to put that case in the category of identity fraud."

An individual's identity can be stolen in a number of ways, according to Pak: stealing a wallet, retrieving discarded mail items, lifting information from Department of Motor Vehicles data, and information given to loan companies or banks.

Three of the most common instances where an individual's identity is at risk are: checking into a hospital, buying a vehicle, and through solicitation calls. In the first two examples a great deal of information is necessary to complete the transaction, according to the panel.

Solicitation calls rely on the recipient's naiveté to answer questions or supply information voluntarily. "We have so much identity theft because there is so much information everywhere," Pak said.

According to national statistics, those areas that provide the greatest percentages of exposure to identity fraud are: Credit cards, 33; phone and utility data, 21; bank information, 17; employment related, 11; loan information, six; and other, 19.

"If you have been a victim of identity theft you must call the credit bureaus immediately. Then call us," Pak said.

Britsch's dealings with this so-called "white collar" crime has covered the globe as well as being part of the Metro Area Fraud Task Force. He and Pak have worked on a number of cases together.

"There was one particular case that reached across the world. It involved selling credit cards numbers over the internet like it was eBay. Thieves would actually bid to buy stolen numbers," Britsch said.

Once the Task Force cracked the identity of the operator of the internet site and made an arrest, they then took over that site and as others would enter the site to make a purchase they pinpointed their location. Police in those locations worldwide would then move in to make those arrests, according to Britsch.

Besosa, who has been working in the area of identity fraud for 25 years, told the audience, "Limit items of your personal ID that you carry on your person. And, never carry your Social Security card with you unless it is for a short period to meet a necessary requirement."