Identity theft a concern during shopping season

By Marc Schoder: PNT Correspondent

On the day that Scott Davis went to buy a car at a dealership in the city he lived in at the time, he thought about the car he’d be getting.
Instead, he was presented with an unexpected credit check failure.
“When they ran my credit report at the dealership, they came back and told me that I had horrible collection accounts showing up from different area jeweler stores totaling anywhere from $1,700 and $2,000,” said Davis, who manages Valley Furniture in Portales. “It took me two years to get the accounts removed from my credit and at the time I had no idea how it happened.”
Davis now has an idea, and he takes appropriate measures to make sure that it won’t happen again.
His story is an example of identity theft, a process of misleading somebody into giving personal information and using that information, usually for material gain.
Davis now periodically shreds credit card statements and junk mail as one of many precautions.
“When this happened I contacted all three credit bureaus and placed a fraud alert on my credit file,” Davis said. “(Now) when someone tries to pull my credit report they have written permission from me first before doing so.”
When Davis is at work he adds that he requires a person’s presence in the store to run a credit application.
“People will call on the phone asking to run their credit to make a purchase at the store and I tell them that I won’t do it over the phone,” Davis said, “as well as that they need to come down to the store and fill out an credit application and sign it.”
Identity theft is just as common online, and it’s likely on the mind of any shopper who weighs the benefits of Internet shopping with security concerns. With the holiday shopping season, many will shop online for hard-to-find items or shipping discounts.
A number of groups such as the Amercian Bar Association have stepped up consumer education efforts — the ABA maintains the site www.safeshopping.org with computer security tips — because online shopping has increased so dramatically.
Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based Internet research company, estimates that online holiday retail sales, including travel, will increase 20 percent to $13.2 billion this year following a 31 percent rise in 2003.
With that increase comes more temptation for would-be thieves, so online merchants want their customers to be careful.
“When shopping on the internet you have to use common sense to remain Internet safe,” says Suzi Webb, proprietor of Webbdirect2u.com, a Portales-based internet web site specializing in children’s apparel.
Webb added when she does her credit card transactions from the Internet she uses payment service sites like Paypal.com and Authorize.net.
“We have used both of these online payment services and had no issues with them with regards to identity theft,” says Webb. “Anything processed in store is destroyed and no records like that are maintained.”
Webb noted that it’s good business to do things to protect yourself on the Internet like change your password to something that can’t be found in the dictionary.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matthew Chandler says that his district has had 10 cases of identity theft go through the office in the last year. Usually, Chandler said, those who committ identity theft leave a paper trail.
“Out of the 10 cases that have come through the office,” Chandler said, “seven of those came resulted in arrests and convictions.”
Steve Salter, director of the Better Business Bureau’s BBBOnline reliability program, said that if consumers have concerns about online merchants, they can contact their local Better Business Bureau for guidance.
To make it easier for consumers to identify online merchants they can trust, the organization issues BBBOnline reliability seals to companies that agree to abide by a code of ethical business practices, pledge accuracy in advertising and display full disclosures about their location, warranties and guarantees, and shipping and return policies.
So far, some 19,000 online merchants in the United States and Canada have qualified to display the seal, said Salter. The program’s site, www.bbbonline.org, has a list of all the companies that have reliability seals.
Salter said one scam that often pops up at holiday time is retailers offering especially popular toys that are scarce.
The Federal Trade Commission offers online shopping tips at its Web site, www.ftc.gov.
Regardless of whether credit is used online, by mail or in a store, identity theft is preventable by the same methods.
“Avoid giving information to anyone,” Davis said, “unless you know what they are going to use it for.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.