Havre Daily News
U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer and his colleagues met with Havre residents, students and employees of financial institutions to discuss the growing problems of identity theft and fraudulent scams and how people can protect themselves. Mercer also encouraged residents to continue to be vigilant for terrorism and other illegal activities .
According to the Federal Trade Commission, stolen-identity crimes rose 80 percent in 2003 and preliminary estimates show the crimes may have risen as much in 2004, assistant U.S. attorney Kurt Alme said.
"We're talking about a crime that is growing exponentially," he said. Identity theft cost victims $5 billion in 2003 and cost businesses and the government a whopping $47.6 billion, he added.
Victims of identity theft can experience credit card problems, may have to deal with collection agencies for debts they did not incur, and could be rejected for loans or insurance, Alme said.
Personal information can be stolen by friends, family or strangers. Lost or stolen purses and wallets can yield information, but so can a garbage can or a mailbox. Alme encouraged people to purchase a shredder to keep information out of the hands of Dumpster divers and said residents should pick up their mail as soon as they can. Mail theft is one of the things law enforcement sees the most of in rural Montana, he said.
Alme said people also can protect themselves by keeping their credit cards in sight while visiting a restaurant or store, only signing their first initial and last name on checks - which prevents crooks from knowing their complete signature - and being cautious of putting Social Security numbers on checks or documents when it isn't necessary.
There are a number of telephone and Internet scams out there, he said. Alme said people need to be cautious about who they give their money or information to.
"The best advice is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Mercer added.
If people think they have been the victim of identity theft, they should file a report with local law enforcement and change their credit card and checking account numbers. Good resources, Alme said, are the Federal Trade Commission hotline, (877) IDTHEFT, and FTC Web sites.
Citizens in north-central Montana have a unique opportunity to aid law enforcement in the war on terror because of their proximity to the Canadian border, Mercer said.
"You need to understand that you're in the most important area for us right now because of terrorism," Mercer said. "We need everybody here to keep their eyes and ears open."
Mercer and assistant U.S. attorney Mike Lahr reminded bank employees of the importance of filing suspicious activity reports, or SARs, and cash transaction reports, which are used to notify the government of transactions involving $10,000 or more in cash.
Bankers are in a good position to watch out for suspicious activities or transactions because of the amount of contact they have with the community, Lahr said. While employees shouldn't expect to be filing a SAR every day, or even every month, the sheer number of customers and transactions they deal with in a year means they will probably find cause to file one sooner or later, he said. Such reports are taken seriously by the government.
"Trust your instincts," Lahr said. "Those of you who are meeting with the public every day have a lot of training and experience. Based on that experience, you know what is out of the ordinary, what is not normal."
Lahr likened terrorist cells to German U-boats in World War II - they are often hard to detect, but they have to surface sometime. The need for a bank account may bring them into view.
"They have to have access to money," Lahr said. "And that is a chance for us, perhaps, to see them."
He reminded those in attendance that a crime doesn't need to be committed to justify a report. "What you may view as inconsequential may be the missing piece of the puzzle in an investigation," he said.
SARs are also useful in drug trafficking investigations, Mercer said. If someone has been coming into a bank to deposit relatively large sums of cash on a regular basis, the government would like to hear about it, he said.
On the Web: