Fifteen years ago Laura Pearson unknowingly became the victim of identity theft. Today she uses her
training as an FBI special agent to find identity thieves who have even more opportunities to steal
because of personal information on the Internet.
Pearson, along with Special Agent Steven Smith, spoke Wednesday at Bowling Green State University in
honor of October as National Cyber Security Awareness Month. They spoke to a crowd of about 100 people,
many of them faculty and staff members, on "Protecting your good name – social networking awareness
and identity theft precautions."
Both agents are from the FBI’s Toledo office and concentrate on uncovering major Internet fraud schemes.
Pearson said one case she is working on involves a person who was scammed out of $700,000, and her
biggest case was $40 million.
Her own Social Security number was stolen in 1994, and the thief was able to get a car loan and pay it
off without her knowing it. When he attempted to get a mortgage using her number, the fraud was
Pearson said fraud affects more than 10 million people a year. Different types of fraud include identity
theft, foreign lotteries, sweepstakes, advance fee and credit card frauds, plus investment and charity
schemes. The latter can scam people through the use of legitimate-looking Web sites.
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes, and thieves have numerous ways to get people’s
personal information. Social networking sites, such as Facebook, are used by identity thieves, along
with their accessing public and paid information sites on the Internet, Dumpster diving, fraudulent
phone calls seeking to get Social Security numbers, mock Web sites to look like official bank sites,
also called phishing, and more.
Smith told of a new scam called "vishing," whereby thieves say the person’s account has been
closed because of a security problem. They then ask for the person’s bank numbers.
"Order a copy of your credit report each year," Pearson suggested. "I’d definitely take
advantage of it." Staying current with one’s credit report alerts the owner to credit cards others
might have opened in their name.
The Web site to check is www.annualcreditreport.com. Smith added that people can get one free credit
report per year from each of the three bureaus that track them, and recommended getting one every four
For example, in November a person can call Equifax at 1-800-525-6285 for its free credit report; in March
contact Experian at 1-888-397-3742; and in July, call TransUnion at 1-800-680-7289.
Pearson also suggested guests shred their bank statements; close unused bank accounts and credit cards;
hide the pin numbers punched into the debit card machine in a retail store; and update security on
"Eventually people can access that information," she said about unused bank accounts and credit
cards. "They can cause you some damage."
Pearson recommended people search their own names and family members’ names on the computer to see what
personal information is available to others. "The Internet is full of amazing valuable information.
For a criminal, it’s invaluable in a completely different way."
One trick being used by criminals is double scamming. First, they defraud or scam a person in a
particular way. After the person has been tricked, the thief will call and pretend to be someone who
helps victims, saying something like, "I’m here to help you out. I heard you were scammed."
She encouraged the audience to never take a "free" prize and never respond to an offer which
they don’t thoroughly understand.
If a person becomes a victim of fraud, the crime should be reported to a variety of entities besides
local police and the Toledo FBI office. Contacting the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Sentinel
(www.ftc.gov) will guide the victim through every step to take. A fraud alert should also be filed with
one of the three credit bureaus, and that information will be shared among them. Pearson said the
bureaus will block it if someone tries to open a new account.
Another site to access is www.IC3.gov, an Internet crime complaint center. It is a central referral
mechanism for all Internet-related complaints.