As Oro Valley resident Joel Woppert worked in his garden one Saturday afternoon last April, a delivery truck pulled into his driveway and left a large package at his front door.
Reading the packing information, Woppert realized the box contained a set of golf clubs. "Strange," thought Woppert. He's not even a golfer.
"I did golf at one time, but these clubs were right-handed and I'm left-handed," Woppert said.
Certain he hadn't ordered any clubs, Woppert called the delivery company to inform them of the mistake. They told Woppert the clubs had been paid for, apparently by him.
"They suggested that I contact Discover Card," Woppert said.
Once he did, he was shocked.
Someone had fraudulently obtained his credit card information and bought the set of clubs. Woppert had unwittingly fallen victim to one of the fastest-growing crimes in the country — identity theft.
Identity theft takes many forms, from using another person's credit card, to taking someone's Social Security Number to open new accounts, to more elaborate schemes where big-ticket purchases of cars, homes or property are made using another person's identity.
According to a Federal Trade Commission study released in February, Arizona topped the list in identity thefts in 2008, with 149 victims for every 100,000 people. Nearly 10,000 Arizonans reported an incident of identity theft. A third of those reports were employment-related frauds.
But those figures likely don't begin to tell the entire story of identity theft and other frauds Americans fall victim to every year. According to the same FTC report, as many as 65 percent of identity crimes go unreported to law enforcement.
The number of fraud and identity theft cases in Oro Valley has skyrocketed in recent years, according to police statistics.
In 1996, Oro Valley police received a scant five calls the entire year reporting frauds. By 2007, police fielded 205 such calls.
"It's overwhelming," said Oro Valley Police Department detective Doug Hamblin.
For local police, investigating credit card and identity theft poses challenges.
"We find in a lot of the credit card frauds the credit cards were used out of state or out of the country," Hamblin said.
Hamblin said the department has been successful working with police agencies in other parts of the state, particularly in Phoenix, but when the crime takes place farther away from Oro Valley, it becomes increasingly difficult for police to do anything. When the crime occurs out of the country, local police have even fewer options.
"With more than about two-thirds of them, we can't do anything with it," Hamblin said.
Another Oro Valley resident, Barbara Campbell, recently called the police about identity theft. Two times in the past year someone has opened cell phone accounts using her identity.
"That person had my name and Social Security Number — that was all that was required," Campbell said.
The phones were billed to an address in Phoenix. When the bills went unpaid, a collections agency started contacting Campbell in Oro Valley, demanding payment on the delinquent accounts.
For many victims of identity theft, finding a set of golf clubs at your doorstep that you didn't order, or learning that multiple cell phone accounts were opened in your name, isn't the worst part.
While thieves can steal someone's identity with increasing ease, sometimes it can take years to get fraudulent charges removed or damaged credit cleared up.
The problem still plagues Campbell, who said she's working with the phone company to get the issue settled.
"To know that there's a person running around out there using my name and Social Security Number," Campbell said, "it feels intrusive."
With the proliferation of online buying, people unwittingly share their personal credit information with thieves the world over. Computer hackers have breached bank and online shopping outlet Web sites in search of people's credit information.
Other thieves contact potential victims directly through e-mails where they troll for private data. One popular scam emanates from Nigeria and other West African countries, where scammers pose as wealthy government officials requesting help with spiriting money out of the country.
The thieves offer to share the plunder once the victim provides bank account information to where the money can be wired. Those who have fallen victim to this scam find the thieves have drained the bank account, not filled it with exotic riches.
People also might be surprised to find information about them can be acquired through official channels.
Many court systems throughout the country provide searchable case histories on their Web sites. Some of these also give access to digital images of court filings, many of which include personal information like home address, phone number, driver's license and Social Security Numbers.
Pima County Superior Court's Web site does not provide documents online. People have to go to the courthouse in downtown Tucson to view court documents.
Woppert still doesn't know how the thieves found his personal information, but with the help of his credit card company he was able to track the unlawful use of his card.
The thieves first used his card on a Web site that sells music downloads. The thieves appear to have attempted to make a $1 purchase to see if the card had been blocked. When the card came up as active, the thieves ordered the golf clubs.
Woppert called the company that sent the clubs and explained the larceny. The company agreed to take the clubs back and strike the charges from his card.
Shortly after the clubs showed up at his door, Woppert got a mysterious telephone call. A man with a strange accent called and said that a set of golf clubs he had ordered were accidentally sent to Woppert in Oro Valley. He asked Woppert if he would send the clubs to an address on the East Coast.
Thinking he was speaking with the thief, Woppert agreed, perhaps too quickly. The man became nervous and hung up before Woppert could find out where he was.
"It never got that far," Woppert said. "It was really bold."
Woppert thought the entire event was behind him until, in a later conversation, the golf merchant asked about a second set of clubs ordered with his card that were en route to Maryland.
The two sets of golf clubs could have cost Woppert more than$900.
"I think that they (the thieves) told FedEx that I had moved and that the clubs should be sent to Maryland," Woppert said. FedEx, apparently, fell for the trick.
Woppert unsuccessfully tried to stop delivery of the clubs. The clubs were never recovered.
"Discover Card eventually told me that I would not be charged," Woppert said.
Since the incident, Woppert said he bought his credit card company's most extensive identity theft protection to safeguard himself in the future.
Someone stole your ID. Now what?
The Federal Trade Commission offers the following advice to people who have fallen victim to identity theft.
Place a fraud alert on your credit reports and review your credit reports
Fraud alerts can help prevent an identity thief from opening any more accounts in your name. The following consumer reporting companies can put a fraud alert on your credit report. You only need to contact one of the companies.
TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, Calif., 92834-6790
Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, Ga., 30374-0241
Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, Texas, 75013
Once you place the fraud alert in your file, each of the companies will provide one free copy of your credit report. If you request it, only the last four digits of your Social Security number will appear on the credit reports. Check the reports for inquiries from companies you haven't contacted, accounts you didn't open, and debts on your accounts that you can't explain.
Close the accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently
Call the security or fraud departments at the companies where the fraudulent accounts were opened. Follow up in writing, and include copies of supporting documents. Also, notify credit card companies and banks in writing. Send your letters by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the company received and when. Keep a file of your correspondence and enclosures.
If the identity thief has made charges or debits on your accounts, or has fraudulently opened accounts, ask the company for the forms to dispute those transactions.
Once you have resolved your identity theft dispute with the company, ask for a letter stating that the company has closed the disputed accounts and has discharged the fraudulent debts. This letter is your best proof if errors relating to this account reappear on your credit report, or you are contacted again about the fraudulent debt.
File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission
You can file a complaint with the FTC using the online complaint form; or call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline, toll-free: 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338); TTY: 1-866-653-4261; or write Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20580. Be sure to call the Hotline to update your complaint if you have any additional information or problems.
File a report with your local police or the police where the theft occurred
Call your local police department and tell them that you want to file a report about your identity theft. When you file your report with police, bring a printed copy of your FTC ID Theft Complaint form, your cover letter and your supporting documentation. The cover letter explains why a police report and an ID Theft Complaint are important to victims.
Ask the officer to attach the ID Theft Complaint to their report. Tell them that you need a copy of the report to dispute the fraudulent accounts and debts created by the theft.
Source: Federal Trade Commission
How to minimize your risk of identity theft and other crimes
Be cautious about giving out your personal information to others unless you have a reason to trust them.
Check your financial information regularly.
Request a copy of your credit report periodically.
Keep careful records of your banking and financial accounts and photocopies of all your credit cards, debit cards, bank accounts and investments. Also, keep the account numbers, expiration dates and telephone numbers of customer service and fraud departments on file.
Source: U.S. Department of Justice
How does someone get your personal credit information?
Dumpster diving: Thieves rummage through trash looking for bills or other papers with your personal information on it.
Skimming: They steal credit / debit card numbers by using a special storage device when processing your card.
Phishing: A thief pretends to be financial institutions or companies and sends spam e-mails or pop-up messages on your computer to get you to reveal your personal information.
Changing Your Address: Criminals can have your billing statements diverted to another location by completing a change of address form.
Theft: A stolen wallet or purse can provide thieves not only your cash and credit cards, but also enough information to set up new accounts under your name.
Source: U.S. Department of Justice
What is identity theft?
According to the Federal Trade Commission, people can fall victim to identity theft in a variety of ways. Here are two common ways people can have their identity stolen:
Account takeover: A thief acquires your credit account information and makes purchases using either the credit card or the account number.
Application fraud: A thief uses your Social Security Number to open accounts in your name. Victims may not learn of the fraud for months, because the account statements are mailed to an address used by the thief.
Identity thieves target Oro Valley
Figures represent the number of calls police have taken reporting various types of frauds, not arrests made.
*As of June 17, 2009
Source: Oro Valley Police Department