Police warn residents of identify theft

H artford resident Kelly Clark was surprised and more than just a little skeptical when she received a text message last month telling her that her debit card at Berkshire Bank had been locked.

The tipoff: Clark doesn’t have an account with Berkshire Bank.

“I thought it was weird. The message said to call this number and follow the instructions,” Clark said.

Fortunately, Clark did not call the number although she did call Berkshire Bank and was told “we get that all the time,” which wasn’t exactly the message Clark was hoping to hear.

“To me that wasn’t the right answer. If I had an account with them, I would have taken my money out,” she said.

The message and the subsequent instructions are a form of identify theft called “smishing” and are not uncommon. “Smishing” is the social media/mobile text version of “phishing” for someone to send valuable proof of identity to a scam artist.

Identify theft has become more prevalent as the use of social media and mobile devices have increased, giving scammers more opportunities that ever before. According to the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York, nearly 12 million people were the victim of identify theft in 2011, an increase of 13 percent.

“Unfortunately if you own a cell phone, you’ll receive a phone scam at some point,” said Peggy Penders of the bureau, adding that she was recently the recipient of a phone scam herself.

Smishing isn’t the only type of scam that has targeted local residents.

Last month, the Whitehall Police Department reported an incident of fraud in which a local resident received a check in the mail. The item was marked as a returned piece of mail, with the subject’s address written as the return address.

Police said the incident was a type of fraud aimed at getting the person to cash the check and wire the money to the person who often claims to be “out of the country of business,” although it was unsuccessful this time. By the time the check is returned for nonsufficient funds, the criminals already have the cash.

Penders said a lot of the scams are sophisticated and sometimes appear to be legitimate. She said scammers have sent checks that are connected to real banks and have actual routing numbers. In Clark’s case, the number that was on her caller ID was Berkshire Bank’s helpline. In Whitehall, the businesses and the banks on the check were legitimate but the companies confirmed they were scams.

“They set up the plot to seem legitimate,” Penders said.

She said there are several things people can do to protect themselves from these types of scams.

 

n Do not click on links in text messages or emails offering free products or trial offers.

n Delete texts or emails that claim you won a free product.

n Never give out your credit card number, Social Security number, or bank account information to pay for fees, taxes, or shipping and handling costs for anything that you may have won or are getting for free.

n Only give out your cell phone number and email address to people you know.

n Monitor your bank statements and credit cards weekly for unauthorized charges.

n Report suspicious texts or emails.

n If you do receive a text that appears to be a scam, contact your cell-phone provider and have the number blocked.

Whitehall Police also recommend never taking action on any check received in the mail, never send a check or wire cash to anyone you don’t know and remember, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.

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