Florida Leads U.S. in Identity Theft

Andrea Robinson


From The Miami Times and republished by our content partner New America Media:


The phone rings, and on the other end is an IRS agent who menacingly warns that the Internal Revenue Service is about to garnish your bank accounts because of an unpaid tax bill.


Don’t panic. Hang up the phone, says a U.S. government official. The call is part of a scam that takes millions of dollars per year from unwitting residents, as crooks increasingly use telecommunications and technology to defraud people throughout the country.


“The IRS will not call you about a tax bill,” said Monica Vaca, a director with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.


Although warnings more commonly go to elderly residents, everyone is at risk, Vaca said. Based on complaints to FTC hotlines, Florida may be even more vulnerable. The state ranks first for a number of complaints about schemes. Vaca said imposter scams, especially by crooks pretending to be government officials, are the fastest-growing in the state.


Vaca and other federal, regional and local fraud specialists and law enforcement officers recently spoke with minority journalists and consumer watchdogs at a workshop about the different schemes in which crooks prey on relatives, business partners and others. She said residents should be vigilant.


Vaca said it was hard to determine conclusively why Florida has so many complaints. The information is used to spot trends, she said.


“This gives us something to pay attention to,” Vaca said. “We want to be sure when consumers are complaining, we keep our eye out for targets, and what companies we should be looking at.”


The Federal Trade Commission, based in Washington, D.C., traditionally monitors businesses to protect consumers and other companies from unfair practices. In more recent years, however, the agency increasingly investigates and prosecutes businesses and individuals based on a variety of complaints.


Cindy Liebes, a regional director with the FTC, said South Florida is the epicenter for complaints of identify theft, especially income tax fraud. She warned that consumers should mask their social security card information, because that gives thieves an open window to their finances, taxes and other benefits.



“Right here is the central area,” Liebers said.


According to an FTC database of U.S. cities, South Florida – Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties – ranked third among the larges metropolitan areas in 2015 for identity theft complaints; the area ranks 25th in large metro areas for fraud complaints. The top complaints by Floridians are debt collection, telephone services, imposter scams, banks and lenders, and prize/sweepstakes scams.


Some scams in immigrant communities are so-called “affinity” scams, where crooks prey on their own loved ones.


Gepsie Metellus, executive director at Sant La in Little Haiti, said a child may pretend to owe a large debt and gets money from a trusting parent or grandparent.


“The youth in the households are victimizing their parents. And the parents don’t want to prosecute,” Metellus said.


Coral Gables Police Detective Michelle Christensen said her department is seeing a rise in tax fraud and other financial crimes. In some instances, she said, crooks have taken over financial accounts by removing the owner’s name, changing passwords, ordering new credit cards or changing pin numbers.


Her advice? “Shred your documents. Even your junk mail, shred it. Don’t just throw it away,” Christensen said.


“Most scams come in over the phone. Recognize it’s a fraudulent call.”


For example, Vaca said, a caller may say, “you’re in deep trouble, or you owe the IRS, or you forgot jury duty. They will tell you that you need to pay money right away.”


Then, the caller asks the person to send the funds through a wire transfer or a MoneyPak, a type of prepaid money card. Don’t do it, Vaca said. “If someone asks you to pay by wire or MoneyPak that’s a major red flag.”


Recently the FTC banned cash reloadable cards in telemarketing transactions because of abuse, Vaca said. “It’s irretrievable; it’s anonymous.”


The best way to avoid falling victim, Vaca said, is to speak out. “Tell somebody about the weird call you got. If you tell someone, they will recognize that something isn’t right.”


From The Miami Times and republished by our content partner New America Media

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