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Heidi Shaffer, Published April 04 2010

Protect against identity theft

Gabe Rheault knew something was wrong when he opened his online banking account and found hundreds of dollars in shoes and makeup charged from businesses in Hong Kong and Europe.

“I was like $500 in the hole,” Rheault said. “I usually keep pretty good track of what’s going on in my checking account, so that was a shock.”

The 24-year-old was the victim of identity theft. Someone somewhere possessed information for the debit card attached to Rheault’s checking account.

Rheault isn’t alone.

In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission received about 273,000 reports of identity theft nationwide, down 5 percent from 2008.

Credit card fraud was the most common form of reported identity theft, accounting for 19 percent of reports in both North Dakota and Minnesota, according to the FTC’s annual report.

Tjaden Sinclair, a financial adviser with the Village Family Service Center in Fargo, said many identity thefts may go unreported to the FTC because the incidents are handled through consumers’ banks and local police.

Rheault and his wife, Kristen, filed reports with their bank, Fargo police and credit bureaus.

Notifying the proper authorities is the first step in preventing further damage to an account, Sinclair said.

Sinclair tells consumers to keep records when they file identity theft reports.

“Documenting everything is very important, knowing who and when you spoke to everyone,” Sinclair said.

Requesting and looking over credit reports can also help detect further fraudulent activity, Sinclair said.

Though the Rheaults’ bank refunded them for the fraudulent charges, it’s still unclear how someone got Gabe’s debit card information.

“Everybody was pretty up front with me, saying, ‘We’re probably not ever going to catch this person, but we can get you your money back,’ ” Gabe Rheault said.

Identity theft is often seen as a faceless, untraceable crime, but for Kristen Rheault it was more personal because a stranger now had their address.

“It really scared me,” Kristen said. “I didn’t sleep well for a couple of days after that.”

The incident changed the way the Rheaults protect their finances. Gabe Rheault changed the passwords and security questions on his accounts, and the couple began closely watching how they disposed of mail.

“The garbage man would come, and I would almost monitor my garbage,” Kristen Rheault said.

Consumers are becoming better informed on how to protect themselves, said Tavia Smith, Virtual Office manager at Gate City Bank in Fargo.

Though some customers are leery of the security of online banking, Smith said it may actually be safer than getting statements through the mail.

Online customers have 24-hour access to their accounts, increasing their chances of catching fraud early. Those who receive mailed statements may not see suspicious charges for a month, Smith said.

Smith also said important financial documents sitting in an unlocked mailbox are less secure than online banking.

Consumers shouldn’t quit using credit and debit cards just because they are afraid of theft, Smith said.

“There’s a way to protect yourself, but sometimes you can even do all of those things and somehow something happens,” Smith said. “So you also need to be proactive about making sure that if something does happen it gets taken care of immediately.”

After the theft

The Federal Trade Commission suggests taking the following steps if you discover fraudulent charges or suspect identity theft:

1. Close the accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Speak with someone in the theft or fraud department of each bank or credit card company. Most will have you fill out a form to dispute charges.

2. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports, and review your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus:

3. File a report with your local police.

4. File a complaint with the FTC: www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or call 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338).

By sharing your identity theft complaint with the FTC, you will provide information that can help law enforcement officials across the nation track down identity thieves and stop them.

– Federal Trade Commission

Preventing identity theft

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511