Theft increases, so does need for precautions


July 20, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

Michael Anthony McBurse became known to clerks at the Timberland Store at Prime Outlets in Hagerstown as a "bulk buyer."

McBurse, 41, of Gwynn Oak, Md., would routinely purchase up to 26 pairs of shoes at a time.

Then Maryland State Police got a call from Adwoa B. Agyeman of Brooklyn, N.Y., after one of the purchases showed up on her credit card.

According to Washington County Circuit Court records, McBurse pleaded guilty to theft and using a counterfeit credit card. He paid restitution and was sentenced to five years probation in November.

McBurse told police that financial stresses due to a medical condition led him to pursue the plan, court records said.

Complaints about identity theft nearly doubled in 2002, topping the government's list of consumer frauds for a third straight year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.


Identity thieves work in numerous ways. According to the FTC, they may:

  • Open a new credit card account in your name. When they use the card and don't pay the bill, the delinquent account is reported on your credit report.

  • Call your credit card company and, pretending to be you, change the mailing address on your credit card account so they can run up charges on your account without immediate recognition.

  • Establish cell phone service in your name.

  • Open a bank account in your name and write bad checks on that account.

Police in Washington County said they investigate local reports of identity theft, although often the cases cross state lines and are referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Washington County Sheriff's Office Investigator Ryan Shiflet said anyone can be a target.

"Basically, that's all someone needs is a name and a Social Security number," he said.

There have been several reports of identity theft at Prime Outlets.

Shiflet said it's easier to be anonymous there because there are many out-of-town customers.

In worst-case scenarios across the country, identity thieves have racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars on someone's credit before being caught, he said.

But even smaller cases can mar someone's credit rating and, at the very least, be a hassle to fix.

"Obviously, it's a huge inconvenience," Shiflet said.

Checking your credit report every year and keeping your Social Security number confidential are two of the best ways to protect yourself from becoming a victim, according to various nonprofit Web sites dedicated to the problem.

Criminals are constantly finding new ways to steal identities.

One recent scam preyed on people's fears about identity theft to try to steal their identity.

Last month, thousands of consumers received an unauthorized e-mail from Best Buy entitled "Fraud Alert," warning them about possible credit card misuse, the FTC said. Recipients were instructed to go to a special Web site and correct the problem by entering their Social Security number.

Best Buy officials said the company did not send the message and its online business is secure.

On June 12, a Hagerstown man pleaded guilty to identity theft after being accused of getting a driver's license and establishing credit using his 3-year-old son's Social Security number, according to Washington County District Court records.

Karl Kenyonn Harris, 23, of 460 Westminster Court, used the fake credit to drive away from Hagerstown Honda in a silver 2003 Honda Accord in March, court records show.

His estranged wife reported the crime to the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

Harris was sentenced to the two months he had already served while awaiting trial at Washington County Detention Center.

Citicorp Credit Services in Hagerstown has an entire department dedicated to detecting credit card fraud. About 300 people work there, said spokesman Phil Kelly.

The company is not allowed to reveal trade secrets about how they catch fraud, he said. But some commonly used tactics in the industry use computer models to detect an unusual spending pattern.

For example, if your card is used overseas it might be flagged and the company you use may block you from using the card until you call and confirm that your card is not being misused.

To prevent such a hassle, Kelly said it's best to contact the company of the credit card you plan to use during overseas travel.

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