By Susan Tompor
Not all that long ago, many of us thought we only had to watch our credit cards to avoid identity theft. If the crooks didn't get the numbers on our plastic, we thought, they couldn't live it up and go on a wild shopping spree like the one in the movie Identity Thief.
But ID theft scams are all over the map, both in terms of geography and kinds of fraud, according to Federal Trade Commission data.
In many states - including Michigan, Kentucky, California, Texas and elsewhere - the largest area for ID theft complaints involves fraud relating to government documents or benefits.
Maybe, someone steals your identity so they can use your health care insurance, said Peter Schoenrock, senior vice president for management at Equifax.
Or an ID thief can steal information to falsely apply for jobless claims, he said. Or fake IDs are used to create fake tax returns that are packed with lucrative tax breaks, such as education credits or the Earned Income Tax Credit, to create generous tax refunds for criminals.
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No, you don't want to leave your credit cards easily in view. But pay attention to your other paperwork, too. You'd be shocked where you'd spot a Social Security number just casually tossed around in your own home.
Digging through a stack of old papers in the attic, I found my Social Security number just casually written on an old economics test from back in college. I guess that was OK back in the day. But if I'm cleaning, I sure don't want to carelessly toss that paper in the trash. Time to shred it.
Snowbirds with winter homes in Florida may want to be even more cautious about their Medicare cards, bank statements and other ID when heading south. Florida ranks No. 1 for ID theft among 50 states, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission.
Florida's seniors are vulnerable as fraud targets; it doesn't hurt that there are many people who travel to Florida on vacation, either. Georgia is No. 2 on the FTC Consumer Sentinel report's list of states with the highest per capita rates of identity theft. California came in at No. 3, and Michigan ranks No. 4.
Equifax - which launched IdentityProtection.com to give an in-depth look at ID theft - noted that areas that have had surges in unemployment or foreclosures may be at more risk for ID theft.
In some cases, some people may feel desperate for cash and be more willing to hand over the Social Security number of a child to someone who is going to create a fake tax return. Or they might be more willing to participate in other ID theft scams if they think they can get quick cash and won't get caught.
Seventy-two percent of the complaints out of Florida involved government documents or benefits fraud. Credit card fraud ranked No. 2, and bank fraud ranked No. 3 in Florida.
"Historically, states that have seen the highest level of ID theft tend to be border states," said Adam Levin, chairman of Identity Theft 911.
Here are some scams that ID crooks use:
• The fake landlord. Spot a great deal on a vacation condo? Maybe a super price on a dream house? Consumers have lost deposit money - and sensitive information that can be used for ID theft - when agreeing to a rental property scam, and they don't realize they've been scammed until they go on vacation.
"You arrive at the rental property. They greet you at the door and they have no idea what you're talking about," Levin said.
Realtors warn that consumers need to watch out for phony listings for homes and apartments on Craigslist and elsewhere online. Craigslist warns consumers that they should not agree to credit checks or background checks for a job or housing until actually meeting an interviewer in person or landlord in person.
• The free prize that pops up on your cellphone. The Federal Trade Commission took action earlier this year against marketers that sent unwanted text messages offering "free" gift cards. Once spammers have your personal information, it can be sold to marketers or even end up in the hands of ID thieves.
• Watch your child's ID. The most stolen piece of identification from a child is a Social Security number, and sometimes it's a family member or friend who commits this crime, said Dianne Shovely, vice president of fraud services for Comerica Bank in Auburn Hills, Mich. Keep birth certificates and paperwork that contains a child's Social Security number, such as your tax return, carefully locked away.
Three ways to avoid ID theft:
• Shred papers, especially those with your Social Security number on them.
• Take extra care with your information during times of life-changing events, the birth of a child, a divorce, a death in the family. Experts say fraud is more likely to take place when people are vulnerable. Pay attention on vacation or during a big move to a new house, too.
• If something sounds odd, it probably is odd. Take time to look up some potential scams. See www.onguardonline.gov.
Source: Detroit Free Press research