The problem has become more consistent, the victims more vulnerable, the perpetrators increasingly savvy.
And while identity theft may not be as prevalent in Fulton County as in more densely populated areas, it carries the same financial sting.
The most recent Fulton County cases came across the desk of Sheriff’s Office Detective Aaron Gladieux in mid-January. All the cases originated at Ozzie’s Carryout on Central Avenue in the Lucas County portion of the Evergreen School District, where the victims used credit cards on pump number six. Unfortunately, someone had attached an external skimmer – a theft device that collects the cards’ data.
Two men and a woman were later caught on security cameras using stolen credit card information to rack up purchases at retail locations in Defiance, Henry, and Lucas counties.
No arrests were made.
No skimmers have been found in Fulton County, but identity theft occurs locally every day, with complaints received by the sheriff’s office about twice each week. Many originate from online purchases with credit cards.
And it’s difficult to avoid being a victim, Gladieux said.
“You can do whatever you want to help protect yourself, but if somebody’s out there with computer technology…there’s no foolproof way to protect yourself,” he said. “You can be the most conscientious person around and it can still happen.”
In most cases, the identity thief will first charge no more than about $50 to test the card’s continued activation. If that works, they may use up to a few hundred of the victim’s dollars. In many cases, the thieves are careful to make small charges that don’t arouse suspicion.
“We investigate to the best of our abilities,” Gladieux said. They have obtained video surveillance in some cases, but the quality can be sketchy.
“If we can track them, we do track them,” he said. At times, local authorities have enlisted the help of the FBI, the Secret Service, and other law enforcement agencies to investigate cases.
When purchasing online, check the website first to ensure it’s legitimate, reputable, and secure, Gladieux said. When paying at the gas pump or completing transactions at automatic teller machines, first look closely at the machinery. Examine the mechanism where the card is inserted to see if it looks loose or cleaner than the rest of the machine. Examine it for anything that looks odd or out of place.
“Check it first,” Gladieux said. “If you think there’s something wrong with it, contact the clerk…and bring it to their attention. Be a little vigilant.”
Unfortunately, he said, identity thieves are becoming increasingly savvy, so arrests and convictions are few.
No skimmers have been found on gas pumps in Wauseon, but the city has had 12 cases of identity theft over the past six months. Most have involved credit card or bank account numbers being hacked. Assistant Police Chief Kevin Chittenden said the theft is often caught early, so the monetary loss remains minimal.
In the majority of cases the creditors don’t hold the victims liable for the purchases made as long as they file a police report. “Most of our local banks usually catch that stuff pretty quick, to where the dollar amounts are usually rather insignificant,” Chittenden said.
However, no perpetrators have been brought to justice in the cases, and Chittenden said it’s unlikely they will be.
“It’s very difficult to prosecute them. They’re using pretty sophisticated computer software and things to mask all that,” he said.
And while tracking illegal purchases, local law enforcement often finds the cases leading to other parts of the country. Chittenden recalled several cases from a few years ago in which the items the thieves purchased led to a warehouse in Miami, Fla.
“At that point, all we can do is send the information to that police department, and most of the time we never hear anything back,” he said. “We can only go so far with our limited local resources.”
Chittenden advises people to regularly monitor their bank accounts, and to contact the bank immediately if they detect illegal activity. And he said the chips now routinely implanted in credit cards have helped banks to deter theft.
But he added that, with the level of computer sophistication hackers have, “it almost seems to be not so much a matter of ‘if’ but more likely ‘when’ your account will get compromised.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.