With identity theft reports up, residents are urged to protect themselves
LANSING — There has been a significant increase in reports of identity theft connected with the COVID-19 pandemic, state officials say.
And the Internal Revenue Service is warning taxpayers “to be on the lookout for a surge of calls and email phishing attempts about the coronavirus, or COVID-19. These contacts can lead to tax-related fraud and identity theft.”
In addition, taxpayers should be alert for text messages, emails, websites and social media attempts that request money or personal information, the IRS said.
Attorney General Dana Nessel said that the pandemic has caused an increase in the number of cases of identity theft cases.
“Yes, there has been a huge rise in reports,” Nessel said.
According to the Attorney General’s office the five most vulnerable parts to a person’s identity are date of birth, driver’s license number, credit card and financial institution information, Social Security number and medical information.
To assist those who have been affected by identity theft, Nessel’s office has established a new identity protection unit to help repair damage already done to a victim’s personal information.
For example, she said it can help to rebuild an individual’s credit score.
The new unit is Michigan Identity Theft Support, or MITS, in Nessel’s consumer protection team, public information officer Courtney Covington Watkins said.
The unit says people should ensure that their “sensitive information is secure–whether on paper, online, stored on a computer, or a mobile device.”
That includes knowing who they share their information with, securely storing and disposing of personal information, maintaining security on all electronic devices and asking questions before sharing information.
The nonprofit AARP also works to educate its members on the importance of protecting personal identity.
In addition, it is diligent in addressing scams that may be on the rise.
According to Mark Hornbeck, the communications director AARP Michigan, its Fraud Watch Network has seen an increase in scams, including gift card scams. The network connects consumers to specialists for support and guidance — at no cost.
“People use gift card offers to obtain personal information they can use to steal identity,” Horbeck said.
Between 2017-20, the Federal Trade Commission reported that over $300 million was stolen in gift and reloadable cards.
There are several reasons why scammers use gift cards to commit fraud. They are virtually untraceable, readily available and give the ability to quickly transport large amounts of money, AARP said.
AARP said, scammers have “coerced adults to buy gift cards to settle an issue with their social security account, pay upfront for a service or product, to fix a computer, or to pay a utility bill.”
Older adults may also be a higher risk of identity theft than younger people.
“Older adults tend to be more trusting than younger age groups partly because, for most of their lives, identity theft was not an issue,” Hornbeck said.
He also said that he believes that the increased reports may be due to the infrequent use of technology,
“Some — but not all — older adults are not as tech savvy as younger age groups, making them somewhat susceptible to online scams and fraud,” he said.
Ian Lyngklip, senior attorney at Lyngklip & Associates Consumer Law Center, PLC in Oak Park, is currently assisting those who have been affected by identity theft.
“Identity theft is a very large problem,” he said.
Although the law center has represented identity theft victims for over 20 years, Ian Lyingklip said it handles about three to four cases a year.
This is not due to how many individuals that are asking for assistance, but rather the process it takes, he said.
“The cases are lengthy, and they take a long time to develop,” he said.
According to Lyngklip, the law center is receiving a lot of phone calls from individuals who are reporting they have been victims.
For example, he said that there has been a massive uptick in unemployment benefit fraud related to COVID-19.
These unemployment benefits are designed to give additional financial assistance to those who have been affected by the pandemic.
“Every day people are being taxed on this,” he said. “On money they never got.”
The amount of people preying on people’s weaknesses is just astounding, he said.