Central Valley

Identity thieves keep busy in Central Valley

Here's another list we never wanted to make: Worst place for identity theft.

Well, one of the worst anyway. And every county in the San Joaquin Valley made that list.

"Identity theft is a horrible problem. It's the No. 1 crime in the nation," said Stanislaus County sheriff's Detective Joe Knittel. "It's a crime of opportunity, and it's happening all over."

A Federal Trade Commission study counted nearly 314,000 cases of identity theft last year. That included more than 51,000 in California, 936 in Stanislaus County, 1,318 in San Joaquin County and 559 in Merced County.

All eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley ranked among the worst on the FTC identity theft list, which ranked communities based on the number of complaints per 100,000 residents.

"Fraudsters travel, and a lot of them are coming from the East Bay and running right down the valley," said Karla von Hungen, a Modesto Police Department community service officer who specializes in tracking identity theft. "They perceive the valley as lacking in sophistication. They've already been identified by law enforcement in the Bay Area, so now they come here."

Becoming an identity theft victim is easy. All you have to do is use your credit card at a restaurant with an unscrupulous waiter. Or throw away a financial document. Or fall for a bogus e-mail pitch or phone call.

"There's so many ways to commit identity theft it's astounding," von Hungen warned. "I beg people to regularly check all their financial records and to shred, shred, shred their documents."

Many thieves don't wait for documents to be tossed out. They grab them straight from mailboxes.

"So many mailboxes sit right next to the sidewalk. They drive by, reach in and take your mail," von Hungen said. Too often thieves grab bank statements, credit card bills and other financial records. "Mailboxes are like a gold mine for fraudsters. You should get yourself a locking mailbox."

Also, be aware when using your credit card.

"They have 'skimmers' as small as a Bic lighter," Knittel said.

Skimmers are special data storage devices that can read the encoded information on credit or debit cards. A thief -- perhaps a dishonest store clerk, gas attendant or restaurant worker -- can "skim" a customer's card in seconds. The stolen information then is used to run up bills.

Knittel said even if credit card companies or banks eventually refund the lost money, it often takes many hours for identity theft victims to clear their records and undo the damage.

"Be vigilant," Knittel advised. "If you've got online banking, check it every other day. It's your money."

The detective also warned residents to not keep financial data or passwords in unsecured computer files. If the computer gets stolen, so can your identity.

Another warning, especially for senior citizens: Never give out personal information -- such as passwords, Social Security numbers or date of birth -- to anyone who calls on the phone.

"Don't even confirm your name," von Hungen cautioned. "You don't have to be polite. You can hang up the phone."