Identity theft in Beaufort County rising faster than national average

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Identity theft in Beaufort County rising faster than national average

By ALLISON STICE
astice@islandpacket.com
Published Monday, March 5, 2012   |  745 Words  |  

At one time, Rhonda Williams of Bluffton used her credit card to pay for just about everything, including paying all of her bills online.

That was until a routine review of her bank statements in early February turned up a fraudulent $2,000 payment to a psychic based in San Francisco.

"I'm still fighting (the charge) up until today," she said.

Williams is not alone.

Identity theft is the top consumer complaint reported to the Federal Trade Commission for the 12th consecutive year, according to a report released by the commission last week.

The crime doesn't top South Carolina's list -- consumers in the Palmetto State said their No. 1 problem is debt collection -- but the number of identify thefts in the state has risen at the same pace as the national average.

Statewide, cases of identity theft increased 15 percent, from 2,762 complaints in 2010 to 3,168 last year. That bumped South Carolina from the 29th state for identity theft complaints per capita in 2010 to 20th in 2011.

In the Beaufort-Hilton Head Island area, the increase was even greater. Reports of identity theft rose by nearly 55 percent, from 108 reports in 2010 to 167 in 2011, according to analysis of the Federal Trade Commission's consumer complaints by LifeLock, a company that offers identity-theft protection.

The actual number of identity-theft cases is probably higher than that because most victims don't know they should report it to the FTC, said LifeLock senior director of corporate communications Tami Nealy.

Although the number of local incidents is low relative to more populated areas, many communities with strong tourism industries are more at risk, according to Sheriff P.J. Tanner.

"When traveling, a lot of people don't carry cash," Tanner said. "They vacation with traveler's checks or credit cards."

The more you use a credit card -- including at restaurants and bars -- the more chances thieves have to find your information, Tanner said.

"Make sure that card is protected and check your account online," he advised.

Other tips to prevent identity fraud include making sure credit card information is only entered online over secure wireless connections -- not, for example, at a coffee shop that has free Wi-Fi and doesn't require a password to log on.

It also is important to ask those who request Social Security numbers, even doctors and dentists, how they will encrypt that information when transmitting it to third parties, such as insurance companies, said Dianne Acton, an adviser on Hilton Head Island for Legal Shield, a company that provides identity-theft protection.

Thieves know where to look for personal information and are more likely to try because of the recession, Acton said.

"If they have bad credit or can't get a credit card because of the poor economy, they'll go out and get someone else's," she said.

Tax season also creates more of the crime. The FTC reports that 24 percent of the identity theft complaints logged in 2011 involved fraudulent filings for tax refunds or to apply for jobs.

Williams, for one, said she is doing even more than identity-theft experts recommend in order to protect her credit card and personal information.

"Now, I've come to the understanding that I'm just not going to purchase anything online anymore," Williams said. "I refuse to pay my bills online anymore. I refuse to do much of anything online."

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/LCBlotter.

Related content:

Study: Troops face high risk of identity theft, Jan. 10, 2011

Beaufort County sheriff says ruling on ID theft won't affect crackdown on illegal immigrants, May 11, 2009

Experts warn residents to watch out for scams, March 23, 2009