HJ/EDEnterprise Dispatch, Dec. 5, 2005

Identity theft No. 1 holiday danger, county sheriffs say

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Sometimes we are more vulnerable during the holiday season than we think. Identity theft is an especially big threat between Thanksgiving and Christmas because of all the hustle and bustle of the season and extra shopping consumers do. Identity thieves are watching and waiting for opportunities.

“We’re so honest in this area we don’t think of those things,” said Meeker County Mike Hirman.

Women shopping and carrying a large, loose purse slung over their shoulders are easy marks for pickpockets, for example. Often their wallets are near the top of their purse and full of credit cards, he said.

Hirman recommends limiting how much identification, other than drivers licenses, is carried while shopping. Credit cards should be stored extra securely, Hirman said.

Even if thieves don’t get a hold of the actual cards, watch out where the numbers go, Hirman said. Ask for the carbons in addition to the credit card receipt, if possible. Be careful about giving out credit card numbers over the Internet or telephone, he said.

Area residents are vulnerable to property theft also. In Litchfield law enforcement officers recently caught a “car prowler,” a person who roams around parking lots and streets looking inside cars for something to steal. Usually car prowlers are supporting a drug habit and are looking to steal an unlocked car or merchandise inside. Sometimes they carry a little hammer to break the glass windows if they see something inside the vehicle they want, Hirman said.

Hirman suggested locking merchandise in the trunk of the car so thieves can’t see it, and always lock vehicles.

Another time shoppers are vulnerable is when they carry too many packages at once. Shoppers will set some down on the floor so they can examine merchandise on a rack or counter and thieves will walk off with their packages, he said.

Thieves know there will be gifts under the Christmas tree so it’s important to keep homes locked. Don’t make it easy for burglars who do manage to get inside by having cash sitting out in the open on a table or counter top. It is easier for burglars to spend cash than it is to resell stolen items, Hirman said.

“These are some of the things to be careful of,” he said. “We want everyone to be safe and have fun.”

People will be going to more parties than usual, and alcohol might be served, so designate a driver to stay sober, Hirman added.

Wright County Community Policing representative Eric Leander agreed that the area is relatively “safe.” “Crime is always an issue, though,” he said.

Charities will increase soliciting for donations during the holidays to take advantage of the community’s Christmas spirit. Before residents donate, check out whether the charity is reputable by getting a location for it. Then the charity’s background can be checked out, Leander said.

Never allow a “charity” to use social security numbers or bank account numbers to withdraw donations. “That’s just a real bad no-no,” Leander said.

Identity thieves will be counting on shoppers not keeping close track of how much money they spend with their credit cards. Destroy information from credit cards that goes into the trash, because thieves are willing to sort through trash cans to get it, Leander said.

Rural residents should not leave gifts in their mail boxes to be picked up by mail carriers because thieves steal from mail boxes. Rural residents should take the gifts into town and mail them from the post office, he said.

Don’t leave shopping bags in the car where thieves can see them through the windows. “You’re just inviting people to steal them,” Leander said.

The holidays also are a time when people travel. If residents leave home for an extended time, make the home look as if someone is there by having the walk shoveled, mail picked up and lights on timers. Ask a neighbor to watch the house and leave contact numbers with the neighbor in case there is a fire or the electricity goes out, he said.

It often snows during the holidays so make sure house numbers and mailbox numbers are not obscured by snow. Otherwise ambulances and fire trucks cannot respond if they can’t find the correct home, Leander said.

Also, firefighters have mentioned to Leander that unattended lit candles cause many fires during the holiday season. “Keep a close eye on them,” Leander said.

Burglars are always on the watch for easy ways to score and escape.

“If you celebrate the holidays with a Christmas tree and gifts, don’t openly display them in front of a window that can be easily seen from the street,” said Wright County Sheriff Gary Miller.

“It can tempt a burglar into smashing the window and grabbing the wrapped gifts,” Miller said.

Don’t pile up the packaging from expensive gifts on the street to be collected by the local waste hauler. “This openly displays to anyone driving down your street what your home has inside. Instead, break or cut boxes to conceal the item identification,” Miller said.

If the home is decorated with outdoor holiday lights, don’t run extension cords through an open door or window. This allows easy entry into the home by thieves. Hire an electrician to install an exterior outlet instead, he said.

Finally, don’t leave descriptive messages on the answering machine that the property owner is out of town for the holidays. “This would let a burglar know there is plenty of time to enter your home,” Miller said.


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