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where there's smoke: A building under construction next to the Logan Police Station caught fire from a welder's spark. Damage was estimated at $50,000. / Photo by Gideon Oakes

Today's word on journalism

August 27, 2008

On protests at political conventions:

"The citizens of Denver and St. Paul, and Americans everywhere, should hope officials in those cities already have considered both the constitutional and monetary costs of silencing voices that have a right to be heard. . . . Well-expressed or wacky. Irritating or illuminating. Respectful or raucous. There's nothing in the 45 words of the First Amendment that sets out any such qualifications or limits on protests. Time and again in our history, from women's suffrage to civil rights to tax protests, to name just some, voices first raised in the streets -- to the disgust or disappointment of some -- have led to significant, positive changes in law and American life."

--Gene Policinski, executive director, First Amendment Center, 2008

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Good deed turns into case of identity theft

By Brittny Goodsell Jones

May 12, 2008 | Monica Neilson said she met the girl at church. That Sunday, the new girl mentioned to some of the churchgoers that she was looking for a place to stay. Neilson, who had previously shared some casual talk with the girl, said she could stay with her for awhile in her two-bedroom condo. At the time, Neilson, a full-time office worker, said she didn't think there was any harm in helping someone out.

But a few weeks later, Neilson realized it was a mistake.

That's because the new roommate stole Monica Neilson's identity.

The thief took Neilson's checkbook and wrote out checks over a week and a half. The amounts were sometimes below $50, but some of the check amounts were more than $200. Neilson said her driver's license was missing at the same time as her checkbook and thinks the girl may have taken that as well.

Identity theft accounts for almost a third of the Federal Trade Commission complaints taken in 2007, according to the Washington Times. That means identity theft has become the top compliant, eight years running, The Times states. And even though identity theft cases declined last year from 8.4 million to 8.1 million, this type of fraud is still a concern for any American and no one is safe.

Especially since people are getting more creative in their ways to steal identities, the article states.

"A girl at church, who would expect that?" Neilson said. "I never would have."

Neilson said she felt uneasy about the roommate situation from the day the girl showed up. The girl actually moved in a few days earlier than planned, knocking on Monica's door at 6:30 a.m. The girl only had the clothes she wore and a purse, Neilson said, which made Neilson start wondering if there was something wrong.

And a few days later, Neilson said that feeling was confirmed after her new roommate left a note saying she would be back later, and then never returned.

The next morning, Neilson said she checked her bank account out of habit and found a check written to Wal-Mart for more than $200 had posted to her account from the previous week. Since Neilson said she had not been to Wal-Mart in the past week, her suspicions arose. And after that first check, Neilson said more started coming through.

That's why Stacy Abbot said to think twice before hiding personal information in an obvious place. Abbott, assistant director of financial and counseling services at the USU Family Life Center, said thieves can find personal information easily, especially if it is a place such as a filing cabinet or a labeled box. Abbot, who works with Cache Valley citizens to educate them about preventing identity theft, said people should always keep track of their wallet, checkbook and important cards. She also said she recommends shredding any personal information not needed, such as old taxes and credit card offers. This can help lower a person's identity theft risk, she said.

However, it's not always that simple.

Abbot said she was surprised when she went to a store with her husband's card to buy something. When they asked Abbot for her identification, she passed by without any trouble.

"All I said was, 'Oh, my husband is in the car,'" Abbot said.

For Abbott, that experience showed her how trusting people can be and how non-aggressive people often are, in terms of making sure a person is really who he or she claims to be, she said. This mistake can cost, though, since identity theft costs almost $53 million annually, Abbott said.

Once a person knows his or her identity has been stolen, Abbot said to immediately call the police and the bank. The financial institution will put all accounts on hold, she said. This will help minimize the damage of identity theft. But if that person doesn't check their bank account often or balance his or her checkbook, things could get ugly quickly.

"If you're not checking, you will never know," Abbott said.

After Neilson said she realized her new roommate stole her identity, she called her bank and froze all her accounts since the girl probably still had access to Neilson's checks. Once Neilson went to the police, she also realized her driver's license was missing, although she said she is unsure if her roommate took. Neilson said Logan police told her it was possible Neilson was targeted because of how similar the two girls look like each other. The roommate may have picked Neilson out of a crowd to help pass herself off as the real Monica Neilson.

Now, as a victim of identity theft, Neilson said she takes extra measures to make sure her personal information remains personal. She said she bought a cross-cut shredder to get rid of mailed credit card offers and any bank information. Tax information and other important numbers are now stored at her parent's house, Neilson said. She also checks her bank account even more often than before to make sure everything looks right. But the biggest change in Neilson, she said, is how she approaches others.

"I am more gun-shy with people," Neilson said. "I still want to help people but I'm not as forthcoming."

Abbot said remaining a private person is important when dealing with others in a consumer fashion. Never give out a social security number unless you initiated the call yourself, she said. Abbot also said to challenge requests at the register for personal information like a person's zip code or phone number. Memorizing things like pin numbers and passwords is also a good way to help prevent identity theft, she said.

But thieves can still get to someone's information. Thieves often go "dumpster diving" through trash to find checks, bank or credit card information, Abbott said. Some even fill out change of address forms with the U.S. Post Office to divert a consumer's mail to a location accessible to the thief. "Shoulder surfing," or a thief looking over a person's shoulder during a bank transaction, is also another way Abbot said thieves can capture personal information. This often happens on Internet banking screens or at ATM machines.

And the person looking over a shoulder while in the ATM machine may be closer than someone thinks: it could be someone familiar. Abbott said at least 25 percent of identity theft victims know or are related to the thief.

Neilson said she believes it. People can never guess who will steal their identity because the thief can be someone as close as a friend or family member, she said. Neilson said to never underestimate the advantage of keeping personal information secure and away from others.

"The biggest thing is that it could be anyone, anyone who comes into your home," Neilson said.

The girl who came into Monica's home and stole Neilson's identity was caught a few weeks later by Logan police. By the end of her financial trail, Neilson said she written more than three checks with Neilson's checkbook. Neilson said the thief is currently serving time in jail. Now, with a year sentence remaining, Neilson said she hopes the girl is getting the help she needs.

"Maybe she came into my life for a reason and the reason was to get caught," she said. "But for such a small amount to have to spend a year in jail?"

Neilson shakes her head.

"Why do that for such a small amount?"



Copyright 1997-2008 Utah State University Department of Journalism & Communication, Logan UT 84322, (435) 797-3292
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