Fresno police say the city's street gangs are moving into the identity theft business in a big way. Using stolen information to assume victims' identities, they can steal thousands of dollars with a computer instead of hundreds with a handgun.
Sgt. Sherree Flores on Wednesday urged people to take steps to protect themselves while spotlighting the issue. Taking a page from the department's auto theft unit, police listed the city's top five identity theft suspects.
Flores said crooks are networking and the crime is "exploding" as they become more sophisticated in assuming victims' identities. She said the trend began about two years ago and is spiraling upward. Methamphetamine and other drugs fuel the crime and the notorious Bulldog gang is becoming a player, she added.
Officers are now finding victims' credit reports when they serve search warrants at suspects' homes along with instructions about how to commit the crime, Flores said. Not only are the thieves taking the identity of a victim, but they are also "mixing and matching" victims by making it look like one person whose online identity is stolen is the criminal who is committing the crime against another victim.
One of the greatest dangers victims face can happen if the thieves gain access to a credit report. They can then create new credit accounts in the victim's name, begin ordering valuable merchandise online and have it sent to other addresses.
Trouble really starts when the thieves get a victim's Social Security number. With that and a name, thieves can go to www.annualcreditport.com, a website where anyone can check their credit history once a year with each of the three credit reporting firms, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. The website is there to protect consumers, but with a little bit of information thieves can turn it against them. The best way to prevent that from happening, Flores said, is to go to the website and access your information from all three firms every year. The information can only be obtained once a year and once a consumer accesses the data, it can't be accessed again for a year by anyone else.
One of the issues that makes identity theft so easy is the availability of information online. Many of the security questions a consumer is asked are easy to guess, Flores said, such as where you went to high school, the name of your spouse or your employer.
While it can be difficult to avoid providing your Social Security number to everyone who asks for it, Flores said every effort should be made to limit those who know it.
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