Identity theft on the rise in Clark County

Technology's spread puts residents at risk; property crimes plague one neighborhood

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Help prevent identity theft

Tips to protect yourself against fraud, forgery and identity theft:

• Don’t carry your Social Security card.

• Regularly check online bank statements or review statements that come in the mail. Immediately report any suspicious transactions to the financial institution.

• When mailing a check or payment, drop it off at a local post office. Don’t put it in the mailbox.

• Instead of recycling unwanted documents and mail, shred them. Identifying information, even just a name and address, can be used against you.

• When going out of town, request that the post office put a hold on your mail.

• Keep credit and debit cards with you at all times. Don’t leave them in the car or inside a purse, even if the purse is stowed in the trunk.

• Carry a wallet that blocks the radio frequency waves of scanners used by electronic pickpockets to steal credit card information.

Source: Clark County Sheriff’s Office

Clark County sheriff’s Detective Tom Mitchum said he isn’t surprised that identity theft increased by nearly one-third from 2012 to 2013 in the county and in Vancouver.

It’s too easy these days to fall victim, he said. “Technology has a grip on everybody’s identity.”

As those fraud and forgery crimes increase, property and violent crimes are trending downward in the county, according to crime data compiled by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Experts predict there will be more financial crimes as the world becomes more wireless and criminals get better at data mining and hacking. It’s also easier emotionally to steal from someone you can’t see, Clark County sheriff’s Detective Kevin Harper said. To a criminal finding financial information online, the person they’re stealing from is just a number.

These days, criminals scour websites for personal information, such as names, addresses and Social Security numbers. They can purchase credit card information for a couple of bucks online and use the information to set up accounts in the cardholder’s name, Mitchum said.

Criminals also still manage to steal personal information the old-fashioned way, by swiping a purse from a car or intercepting someone’s mail. Armed with someone else’s name, address and stolen credit card, they can set up online accounts to make purchases. Often, an identity theft victim doesn’t even realize they’re a victim until they get a call later on from a financial institution about an out-of-character purchase made in their name.

Police say the crimes hurt a network of people, including the credit card holder, the financial institution, the merchants and the credit card companies.

Vulnerable adults targeted

Harper, who deals with crimes against vulnerable adults, said that people increasingly seem more willing to make reports if they fall victim to a financial scheme. He’s given presentations at assisted living facilities about scams and financial predators that often target the elderly.

More financial institutions, he said, are reporting problems because their staff are trained and mandated to protect customers. Harper said it’s unfortunate that businesses that wire money aren’t held to the same standard because vulnerable adults who fall victim to financial schemes often go to these businesses to wire money to scam artists.

“It’s safer. It’s harder to track,” he said.

Calls, crimes keep sheriff’s office busy

According to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, the agency:

• Starts a new emergency call every seven minutes.

• Takes a property crime report every two hours.

• Takes a violent crime report every seven hours.

Did you know?

• The Clark County Sheriff’s Office works with U.S. Postal Service inspectors to investigate cases of mail theft.

What people often don’t realize is that these types of crimes don’t just rob people of their money. They also hurt their credit score and victims lose time trying to get back on track, Mitchum said.

“It’s a mountain that’s almost too hard to climb for some people,” he said.

Anyone who becomes a financial victim is advised to tell police, even if there’s no investigative lead. The police report can help victims clear credit damaged by the criminals and keep bill collectors at bay.

Property, violent crimes

Since their peak in 2010, property crimes and violent crimes in Clark County have decreased 15 percent and 21 percent, respectively.

Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp points out that even though the numbers say property crime is down, it doesn’t mean people should stop being vigilant about protecting themselves and their belongings.

“Numbers are certainly very helpful — we use them a lot — but we have to take in the totality of everything,” she said. “We certainly don’t want people to take a break and stop doing crime prevention.”

Each type of property crime decreased in 2013 except for theft, which is the most prolific crime in Clark County. Since its height in 2010, theft has dropped by more than 28 percent. From 2012 to 2013, however, theft numbers leveled out.

Arnada burglaries

The west Vancouver neighborhood of Arnada consistently faces problems with property crimes, and its property crime rate went up in 2013. The burglary rate doubled after a string of residential burglaries in December 2013. The neighborhood is tucked into a corner bordered by Interstate 5, Fourth Plain Boulevard, Main Street and Mill Plain Boulevard in the Uptown area.

Resident and neighborhood leader Suze Marshall said that one reason for the higher rate may be that residents are more proactive about calling police when something doesn’t look right.

“We’re reporting every darn thing. We’re getting tired of it,” Marshall said.

She’s had her car tires slashed and windows smashed, her garage vandalized, artwork stolen from her yard and her son’s car was stolen while he was home from college. She said people come through the neighborhood Monday nights, before garbage day, and rifle through the trash cans that are put in the alleyways.

The neighborhood association actively tries to deter crime, Marshall said. People are prudent about locking doors and windows. They help their neighbors purchase surveillance cameras and look after their homes while they’re out of town. Residents also keep up their lawns and regularly do volunteer yard maintenance for older residents who might not be able to. Keeping shrubs short and lawns mowed makes the yard more open and offers fewer hiding places for potential burglars.

“We’re having better success at catching people,” Marshall said.

Neighborhood Crime 2013