Speaking before an audience at Crowell Public Library, Stacia Crane recounted that authorities once apprehended someone who had used about 600 Social Security numbers for a variety of fraudulent crimes.
Crane, a public information officer for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, then asked the audience where they supposed the thief obtained the numbers. Many assumed it was through mail theft or internet phishing. Crane corrected them.
“Try an elementary school,” she said, to the surprise of many. “Children’s I.D. is prime for being stolen.”
Crane explained that a central office employee at an elementary school stole a large number of student records, all of which contained the students’ Social Security numbers. It was like unearthing buried treasure for an identity thief.
Crane and several others involved in combating fraud and information theft presented a workshop at the library on Feb. 24 on how to fight scams and safeguard data. The consumer protection workshop was organized by Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park), whose district includes San Marino.
Preceding the elementary school question, Crane asked for a show of hands by those whose identity has been stolen. Approximately half of the audience raised their hands, which did not surprise Crane.
“Odds are, your identity is going to be stolen, if it hasn’t been already,” she said.
Other presenters included Carlos Marquez, a program manager with the state Contractors License Board; Stephanie Holloway, a community outreach liaison with the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs; and Brian Wong, a detective with the San Marino Police Department specializing in financial crime.
Marquez urged people to be thorough in vetting anyone they hire for contractor work, including securing their contractor’s license information and inquiring whether they’ve had any complaints filed with the state. All prospective work should be itemized in a written and signed contract that includes a progress and completion schedule. Consumers also should know how to locate a contractor.
“If you have a contractor who refuses to do that, I wouldn’t deal with that contractor at all,” Marquez said.
No more than 10% of a contract (up to $1,000) can legally be charged in advance, according to Marquez. Consumers also should obtain at least three bids for a project before selecting a contractor and warned that some abnormally low prices might indicate the contractor is skirting regulations, such as failing to have workers’ compensation insurance.
Alleged contractors seeking work by going door-to-door or advertising on websites such as Craig’s List (“Fraud’s List,” as Marquez called it) should be treated with suspicion, Marquez added, as should those pushing to start work immediately. Consumers should ensure contractors have obtained the proper permits from their cities or counties.
Marquez emphasized the importance of securing your own financing for projects if possible and of having a neighbor or friend help if you’re in a position to be taken advantage of. Consumers have up to four years to report faulty work to the state.
Holloway focused on scammers who use email or phone calls to pressure victims into providing personal information or sending money to pay a non-existent or fraudulent debt. Under the guise of representing the Internal Revenue Service or a utility provider, scammers will threaten prosecution or threaten to disconnect utilities unless payment is made immediately.
“There’s always going to be a sense of urgency with someone who has the intent of scamming you or committing fraud,” Holloway said.
The IRS, Holloway emphasized, does not demand payment over the phone or door-to-door and will always communicate by mail (which can also be verified as authentic by a local IRS office).
“You should never, ever [provide] your Social Security number, your birthdate or your credit card numbers to someone contacting you over the phone,” she said.
Wong piggybacked on Holloway’s presentation, advising people to tell suspect callers that they are hanging up and calling back after independently getting the phone number of the alleged agency. Southern California Edison, as an example, does not threaten service disconnection unless paid immediately and, furthermore, doesn’t have a disconnection department.
The Gas Co., as another example, rarely sends employees to homes for any purpose other than a service request and requires employees or subcontractors either to carry proper I.D. badges or have paperwork proving their authenticity.
At any rate, Wong said SMPD is willing to send an officer to a home to help confirm the identity of supposed utility employees. He also advised that most public entities do not accept wire transfers or prepaid cards as payment.
People also should be suspicious of computer pop-ups or email phishing scams, which are emails that appear to be from official sources, such as eBay or Chase Bank, that contain a link requiring you to login to provide or verify information. The links will connect you to a fraudulent website that looks official and then often redirects you to the legitimate website after you have provided information the scammer was seeking.
Some scammers also scour social media accounts and attempt to trick the victim into thinking they have a relative in need of urgent financial help.
Chau, who chairs the State Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection, said he tries to organize and present this workshop annually for his district, often in alternating cities.
“We saw a need to continue providing this information to the community,” he said in an interview following this workshop. “The perpetrators are getting more and more sophisticated.”
Chau added that state legislators are continually working on laws to protect consumers, such as a law that automatically freezes credit for all children born in the state, but acknowledged the creativity of criminals was a challenge.
“There’s a lot that we need to do,” he said.