Identity theft: Top scams include fake ATMs and check washing

Law enforcement convened Thursday to learn how to combat the fast-rising crime of identity theft.

The daylong summit was free to law enforcement personnel and attracted regional agencies, including Federal Way.

Identity theft is the crime of compromising a person's personal identifying information and using that information to make a monetary profit, said Justin Feffer, a senior investigator with the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Bureau of Investigation.

The scams used to commit identity theft range in scope from simple to high-tech, Feffer said. Basic methods include dumpster diving and check washing. Check washing is when a criminal intercepts an individual's personal check, then uses household chemicals to wash away the ink and write in a new dollar amount and payee.

"Checks remain one of the key items of identity theft," Feffer said.

In Federal Way, most of the identity theft that property crime detective Annette Scholl encounters is linked to checks, both counterfeit and stolen.

"What I see is — eight times out of 10 — is where a person's information is used and put on a check," she said.

Digging deeper, Scholl often finds the victims were also victims of burglary, she said.

Criminals committing identify theft using stolen or counterfeit checks are easier to catch if they are captured on surveillance trying to deposit the fraudulent check, she said. Other methods used to commit identity theft make it harder to catch the crook.

Law enforcement

The April 29 summit was sponsored by the FBI's Law Enforcement Executive Development Association and LifeLock. The partners have spent the past 19 months traveling the country and teaching law enforcement all about identity theft — from the most basic methods used to carry out the crime to new trends and how to fight identity theft. The program is not about trying to sell a product; it's about trying to help law enforcement do its job better, said Mike Prusinski, LifeLock's vice president of communications.

"We're going to give you good solid information you can take back to help your communities," Tom Stone, FBI LEEDA executive director, told the summit attendees.

Identity theft is one of the top crimes in the nation, Prusinski said. A variety of methods are used to commit identity theft and people from all walks of life are attracted to it.

"Criminals understand it's a low-risk, high-profit crime," Prusinski said.

Technical devices

Identity theft can be technical. For example, crooks are replacing faces on ATMs with look-alikes. It's often hard to tell the real thing from a fake, Feffer said. The false faces have high-tech devices installed in them. When a customer enters a debit card into the ATM, the inserted device, as well as the ATM, read the account and pin number. The technology in the false face transmits the customer's information to the criminal. The ATM still works and the customer walks away never knowing his or her identity was compromised.

Other methods include setting up false wireless Internet networks in public places and using the network to access the computer of anyone who logs onto the network, Prusinski said. Individuals that engage in peer-to-peer sharing of files such as music are also susceptible to identity theft, he said. Mail theft, burglaries, corrupt employees and online phishing are also methods by which criminals compromise their victims' identities, Feffer said.

"Everyday the criminals are coming up with something new," Prusinski said.

Getting educated

Federal Way property crime detective Annette Scholl said she attended the summit in hopes of learning how criminals get a hold of victims' information — and what the high-tech devices used to commit the crime look like. The meeting was extremely informational, she said.

School sees identity theft crime about as much as other property crimes, she said. There are ways to help protect oneself from the crime:

• Shred instead of throwing away documents that contain personal identifying information.

• Check your credit score

• Check bank account activity a few times per week and immediately report fraudulent activity to police.

• Use a P.O. box instead of a mailbox. "Do not use your own mailbox for anything," Scholl said. "That's the biggest thing because mail theft is so rampant."

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