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Oklahoma law enforcement officers shed light on a crime they say too often remains in the dark.

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Internet access made white-collar crimes such as identity theft much easier to commit. - BIGSTOCK.COM
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  • Internet access made white-collar crimes such as identity theft much easier to commit.

Six years ago, retired Oklahoma City Police officer Edward Stupka took his car to his local tag agency for renewal and got the shock of a lifetime.

“They said the tag’s already been renewed,” he said. “I said, ‘I promise it has not. My car is outside, and I haven’t renewed it yet.’”

After several conversations with police officers, dozens of trips to state government offices and one long emotional roller coaster, Stupka said he realized someone had stolen his identity to obtain the title to his 2003 Chevy Tahoe. Stupka said after the conman stole his identity, he stole a car similar to his and sold it to an unsuspecting buyer.

“I guess really there were two victims in this case,” Stupka said. “It upset me because as a police officer, I didn’t think this could happen to me.”

He took precautions to safeguard himself from identity theft before he became a victim. He shredded his mail religiously.

After 27 years as a police officer and after suffering from identity theft in 2013, Stupka, 62, said he believes no one can ever completely safeguard themselves from identity theft and the invention of the internet has made white-collar crimes more prevalent.

“When it comes to identity theft, the internet can be the devil,” he said.

Untraceable

According to a 2018 report released by Federal Trade Commission, identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in the nation, where an average 35,000 identities are stolen each year.

Stupka is one of countless Oklahomans who have fallen victim to the white-collar crime, Oklahoma City Police Department spokesman Gary Knight said. 

It’s ironic, he said, that identity theft happens so often, yet there’s rarely a face associated with the crime.

“Identity theft cases are incredibly difficult to solve,” Knight said. “If the crime is committed without evidence and it doesn’t happen locally, that makes solving it even more difficult.”

In the instance that a credit card is stolen or taken out in someone’s name and then used at local retailer, police stations work with the retailer to capture video surveillance footage and target the suspected criminal. Knight said the internet levels out any harm it could induce by white-collar criminals when police stations post screenshots of alleged suspects on social media.

“Social media becomes incredibly helpful in instances were the crime is committed locally and there is evidence,” he said.

When a criminal steals the identity of an Oklahoman over the internet, telephone or out from across state lines, Knight said, more cases than not become manageable rather than solvable.

“The person who steals an identity could be your neighbor or some guy working out of a hotel in a foreign country,” he said.

Likewise, Knight said, identity theft crimes can be as simple as someone stealing a credit card from a purse and using it at a local Walmart or as complex as involving well-organized foreign offices connected to and communicating with local criminals.

There have been instances, Knight said, when police officers have raided local hotel rooms and discovered several individuals working on computers with stacks of social security numbers in hand.

While the idea of intelligent white-collar criminals actively preying on random individuals can be terrifying, Knight said case studies have proven that most of the criminals are not as smart as they are perceived to be and that most instances of identity theft are not life-altering.

“There are exceptions to every rule,” he said. “But more often than not, we’ve found that identity theft is more of an inconvenience than a tragedy.”

Oklahoma attorney general Mike Hunter said even though identity theft crimes are prevalent and difficult to prosecute, there remain tactics individuals can use to prevent themselves from becoming victims.

“I tell people that one of the easiest and best things they can do to prevent themselves from falling victim is to screen their calls,” Hunter said. “Don’t pick up a phone call if you don’t know who’s calling. If the person is legitimate, they’ll leave a voice message.”

In collaboration with the Attorney General Offices’ Consumer Protection Unit, Hunter and state experts on white-collar crime regularly hold seminars educating the public on how they can prevent themselves from becoming victims of identity theft and what they can do if they suspect their identity has been stolen.

While the Consumer Protection Unit can take complaints and investigate white-collar crimes, Hunter said a person’s first point of contact should be the police.

A 2018 Child Identity Fraud Study published by financial advisory firm Javelin Strategy & Research found that a disturbing increase has been seen in the number of children whose identities are stolen each year.

According to the study, more than 1 million children in the United States were victims of identity theft in 2017. The study revealed that nearly half of all child victims were under the age of 12.

Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to victims of identity theft in the U.S., reported that warning signs parents should look out for include receiving calls from collection agencies or credit cards sent to the family’s home in the child’s name, a child receiving preapproved credit card offers and evidence that a credit report exists in a child’s name.

Stupka said he has learned the hard way that identity theft criminals don’t discriminate when it comes to choosing their victims. While the suspect in his case remains at large, Stupka said he was able to reclaim the title to his car with a payment of $300.

“I know it’s not a large sum,” Stupka said. “But when you’re having to pay for the crimes committed against you by someone else, it feels that way.”

Stupka said he believes fees associated with reclaiming one’s identity should be waived in the instance that a police report has been filed. 

Prevention

On its website, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has posted the following steps individuals can take to prevent becoming victims of identity theft:

  • Never throw away ATM receipts, credit statements, credit cards or bank statements in a usable form.
  • Never give your credit card number or social security number over the telephone unless you make the call.
  • Reconcile your bank account monthly and notify your bank of discrepancies immediately.
  • Keep a list of telephone numbers to call to report the loss or theft of your wallet, credit cards, etc.
  • Report unauthorized financial transactions to your bank, credit card company and the police as soon as you detect them.
  • Review a copy of your credit report at least once each year. Notify the credit bureau in writing of any questionable entries and follow through until they are explained or removed.
  • If your identity has been assumed, ask the credit bureau to print a statement to that effect in your credit report.
  • If you know of anyone who receives mail from credit card companies or banks in the names of others, report it to local or federal law enforcement authorities.

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