Here are attorney general's four tips to avoid identity theft

Here are attorney general's four tips to avoid identity theft

DANVILLE — Scams, identity theft and other financial crimes concern Karin Berglund, and she plans to do something about it.

The Danville senior citizen took notes Friday during a consumer fraud and identity theft roundtable discussion that was held at the Danville Public Library and organized by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office.

Berglund said she gets sweepstakes letters in the mail quite often. Such scams, offering "valuable" prizes in return for buying "less expensive" merchandise, are one of the many consumer fraud and identity theft ploys discussed during the roundtable.

Berglund said she's never had her identity stolen or been the victim of a financial or credit scam, but based on what she heard Friday, the first thing she plans to do is get and review a copy of her credit report.

That was one of many suggestions made by Madigan and members of her staff, who were sharing information about consumer fraud and identity theft with about 30 community leaders, including law enforcement, agency directors and social service officials, so they can better educate the public about such crimes and the best ways to combat them.

Madigan said her office gets more than 30,000 consumer fraud complaints each year, and her staff has helped more than 35,000 people in clearing more than $26 million in fraudulent charges due to identity theft.

"It's a huge problem that's not going away," she said, adding that for every individual, it's probably not a matter of if, but when, it will happen. People should know there's action they can take to possibly prevent it, she said.

"It's so much more difficult to clean up things on the back end," Madigan said.

Here are four things people can do.

— Put a transaction alert on debit and credit cards, which means the cardholder gets notification of all transactions. Madigan said some people use cards, especially debit cards, for almost all their transactions so alerts could get annoying. In those cases, the cardholder can specify alerts for transactions over certain dollar amounts only.

Madigan said debit cards are not as secure as credit cards, because there may be greater liability on the cardholder's part for fraudulent transactions and there are tighter windows of time for reporting fraudulent activity on debit cards than credit cards.

— Read bank and credit card statements every month. If there's anything suspicious, even a 25-cent charge, call the institution to check on it. Madigan said in some cases, thieves will put very small initial charges on cards to determine if it's a valid account before racking up major charges. Madigan reiterated the tight reporting windows for debit cards, making it very important to read bank statements each month.

— Get copies of credit reports, which can be obtained for free. These can alert you to fraudulent attempts to take out a loan, open a utility account or apply for a credit card in your name.

— Place a security freeze on your credit report. A security freeze prohibits the credit reporting agency from releasing your credit report or any information on it without your authorization. Most businesses will not open credit accounts without checking a person's credit history. Credit reporting agencies can charge each time a freeze is placed, removed or temporarily lifted, but senior citizens are not charged for placing or lifting a freeze, and those already victimized by identity theft are not charged either.

Anna Crane with the attorney general's office said there's a free, less complicated alternative to security freezes.

Consumers can also put a fraud alert on their credit report. This requires a business to verify an identity before issuing any credit. Fraud alerts are free, last 90 days initially, but can be renewed.

"It's an easy way to protect your credit if you're concerned," Crane said.

Madigan said consumers can pay businesses to monitor and protect their credit, but nothing offers 100 percent protection, and doing the four things she suggested will catch or prevent most threats.

However, Madigan said if an Illinois resident does become a victim of identity theft, her staff does offer assistance in cleaning up the mess.

"It's no fun, it's aggravating, and it's really stressful," she said.

Start by calling the Identity Theft Hotline at 1-866-999-5630 to access one-on-one assistance in reporting the crime to local law enforcement and financial institutions to repair credit and prevent future problems.