By Thomas Vogel
There's been a string of identity theft and credit card fraud cases in Forest Park in the last several weeks. Since July 17 alone, according to weekly police reports provided to the Forest Park Review, there have been nearly a dozen cases of unauthorized spending on credit cards, fraudulent ATM withdrawals, and accounts created without consent. Someone even used a 43-year-old Forest Parker's Social Security number to pay medical bills at a hospital in Miami, Florida.
"Identity theft, for years, it just seems to be increasing and increasing. This might be more than usual but we take identity theft and credit fraud reports on a constant basis," Forest Park Police Chief Thomas Aftanas said. "I can't say with 100 percent certainty that this is more than in the past months. They're pretty constant."
Nationally, these kinds of incidents are trending up. About 2.4 million Americans were involved in identity theft cases in 2014, the latest available year data is available, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. That number was 2.1 million in 2012. A Freedom of Information Act request to the Forest Park Police Department by the Forest Park Review revealed there have been 41 credit card fraud and identity theft reports in the last six months.
"Data breaches in the last 10 years or so have just gotten out of control. Every day there are data breaches of personal information," said Axton Betz-Hamilton, a professor of consumer studies at Eastern Illinois University. "Hackers will sell it to someone else, who then uses it. This stuff just gets passed around. It just goes around and around."
These kinds of crimes — which can take place wholly online — are challenging for law enforcement, particularly if an incident crosses several jurisdictions.
"It's tough to make an arrest in some of these cases," Aftanas said. "The offender is rarely seen, especially if it is Internet purchases."
But Forest Park detectives do follow up on leads and share information with other law enforcement agencies, especially if there are decent photographs of suspects.
Not all incidents happen online and there are a few shopping locations in town that have had cases in the past, Aftanas said. Walmart, 1300 Desplaines Ave, as well as convenience stores on village thoroughfares like Roosevelt Road are typical spots for credit card fraud.
Some demographics are especially vulnerable, including the elderly, particularly with over-the-phone scams, but Aftanas said everyone can be a target.
"If you look at the reports, it's people of all ages who are hit."
Aftanas said residents should protect their private and financial information as much as possible and refrain from sharing important information over the phone or online, except on secure sites and portals.
Betz-Hamilton echoed Aftanas and added it's imperative for folks to look for unusual activity on credit card statements, bank accounts, and physical mailings referencing accounts they never opened.
If someone suspects they've been a victim of identity theft or fraud, Betz-Hamilton said, the first thing to do is file an official police report. Most companies and creditors require an official report before they reimburse victims for any losses.
"Most banks and credits will not recognize you as a victim of theft without that report," Betz-Hamilton said. "Unfortunately there are unscrupulous people out there who take advantage of identity theft and try and avoid their own debts that way."
Requesting an official credit report from each of the three official agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — is also helpful. Everyone is entitled to one free report per year.
Some law enforcements agencies are reluctant to take reports because of the cross-jurisdictional ambiguity. In that case, Betz-Hamilton said, turn to the Federal Trade Commission, which has an official complaint portal and tracks cases for similarities.
Betz-Hamilton said there are no indications these kinds of crimes will stop, particularly as more and more information ends up online.
"We have so much personal information that is stored online, in the cloud. Hackers anywhere, if they're smart enough, can figure out how to get that information."
While companies are learning that responding to these incidents is just part of doing business in 2017, many state laws are not severe enough to deter criminals, Betz-Hamilton said. Often, it is just a modest fine for a first offense.
Illinois law, though, does provide for jail time and fines, depending on the amount stolen. There is also statutory language requiring more significant penalties for "aggravated identity theft" — targeting individuals over the age of 60 or those with a disability.
But until penalties increase, Betz-Hamilton says, this problem is likely to persist.
"The laws are so weak. And the reason is because unless you've gone through this, you don't understand how disruptive it is, and how damaging it can be."