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Tips to avoid skyrocketing identy theft

Don't provide personal information to someone who calls or e-mails you, no matter who they say they are.

Don't carry your Social Security card with you. Hardly anyone has a legitimate reason to ask you for it.

Remember the old saying -- If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

And those Nigerians seeking your help to transfer funds out of their country? They don't have any money to transfer. They want to trick you into sending them your money and account numbers.

The best defense against identity theft for businesses and individuals is awareness, a fraud prevention expert said Tuesday in Willmar.

The problem has grown from 700,000 reports of identity theft 10 years ago to 13.7 million reports so far in 2009, said Debra Geister, and "At this rate, it's not a matter of if you're going to be a victim of identity fraud but when."

Geister is director of fraud prevention and compliance with LexisNexis Risk and Information Analytics Group. She spoke at a seminar "Protecting Yourself and Your Business from Fraud and Identity Theft" Tuesday morning at the Kandi Entertainment Center in Willmar. The event was sponsored by US Bank, LexisNexis and the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

The scope of the problem is enormous already and continues to grow, Geister said.

Geister described the tactics thieves use. They range from the low-tech of stealing wallets or going through trash to obtain personal information to high-tech activities like buying stolen credit card information online or committing online retail fraud.

It's common for thieves to use e-mails or telephone calls to try to solicit personal information, she said.

Businesses and individuals can take steps to safeguard themselves from fraud, Geister said.

It's important to protect against fraud, because a person's or business's identity is "everything you are, everything you have; it's your reputation," Geister said.

Some recommendations:

  • Shred documents with sensitive personal information.
  • Work with your bank to develop strategies for safeguarding accounts.
  • Don't carry a Social Security card with you.
  • Don't hand over a credit card to someone you don't know.
  • Watch for suspicious activity -- check bank accounts and credit card statements carefully.
  • Maintain virus, firewall and anti-spyware software on your computer system.
  • Monitor credit reports. Obtain a free annual report from

If a fraud occurs, she said, place a fraud alert and credit freeze on credit reports. Also close accounts affected, alert banks, file a police report and report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission at

Geister offered some statistics from a variety of studies during her presentation:

  • 7.5 percent of U.S. adults lost money to financial fraud last year.
  • The average loss to a business after a security breach is $202 per record compromised and an average total of $6.6 million.
  • Since January 2005, more than 253 million records containing sensitive personal information have been involved in security breaches.
  • Identity fraud losses to businesses and financial institutions totaled $47.6 billion in 2008, and consumers lost $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses.

"We're all paying for this," Geister said.

"As individuals, our identity is fundamental to who we are," she said. But people's natural tendency to trust can open the door to identity theft, she said.

Most personal identity theft is the result of "somebody that's been in your home or knows you," she said.

For businesses, internal fraud by employees can do great damage, and human error is responsible for about one-third of security breaches.

Small businesses are targeted by thieves, she said, and the loss from a security breach can cost small business $36,000 to $50,000 on average. When security breaches last 10 days or more, "your odds are 50-50, if it happens, that you're going to survive," she said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340