INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- The odds are good that you or someone you know has had their credit card or personal information stolen, but rarely do you find out who it is behind the fraud.
Identity theft has exploded in recent years and a CBS4 Problem Solvers investigation found that while it's not slowing down, there is no way to know exactly how many people in Indiana are being affected.
One person who was adversely affected is Michele Knerr, a small business owner on the west side. Someone stole Knerr's personal and business cards out of her wallet last year, and started charging them around town.
"They used them at Get Go, Target, Best Buy, and several other places," Knerr said. "It was upwards, over $1,700."
Knerr did her own detective work, tracking down multiple charges, including one for $500 at the Get Go gas station. According to a receipt, the thieves charged small items, like fruit, and a Slim Jim, but also bought two $200 Visa gift cards and an Applebee's gift card.
"I got my cards cancelled and reissued, and had to do disputes," Knerr said.
Knerr got her money back, but that's as far as her case went. She never got to see surveillance footage of the thieves, even though she knew that video footage existed at more than one store.
"I want to see who did it," Knerr said.
Finding out how many Hoosiers are hit by identity theft and fraud
CBS4 Problem Solvers found that there is very little statewide data in Indiana to show how many Hoosiers have been hit by financial crimes, like Knerr, and the data that does exist suggests she is not alone in her frustration.
According to the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute's 2016 Crime Victimization Survey, one on five Hoosiers experienced some form of identity theft that year alone, but more than half, 57%, did not report it to police. The survey also found that one in four victims believed the police wouldn't be able to help them.
One of the police officers who is tasked with helping victims is Sergeant Steve Walters, who co-runs IMPD's Fraud Unit. Walters told CBS4 Problem Solvers that identity theft is much more complicated than most people realize, and it can be a devastating crime.
"(It's) very impactful for the people who get victimized by these kind of crimes," Walters said.
Walters ran the numbers for his unit, and those numbers showed that since 2014, reports of various types of fraud to IMPD have jumped nearly 50%. Since then, it hasn't slowed down, and the unit receives around 6,000 reports a year.
Using high-tech solutions to keep your information safe
CBS4 Problem Solvers wanted to know what's being done to stop these crimes, especially given their prevalence. At IUPUI, we met Professor Xukai Zou, whose team is researching high-tech ways to stop hackers from getting personal information.
Zou's network system uses biometric data, similar to the way you can now use your fingerprint, or even your face, to unlock your phone. The research considers doing away with passwords, which Zou said still provides thieves with the easiest way in.
"One password is not secure. If you have multiple passwords, (often) you forget this or mess up that," Zou said.
The research is being replicated in other areas, Zou said, particularly companies, where high profile data breaches in recent years have left user information exposed.
"Even some companies research it themselves, try to design it themselves," Zou said.
Changes to Indiana's crime tracking system
How do you attack the issue if you don't really know how widespread it is, though? CBS4 found that in Indiana, changes could be coming, as the state transitions to a new universal data system.
"We are stepping this into place over the next two years," Indiana State Police Captain Dave Bursten said.
Bursten said that by 2020, every police agency will be required to report crime statistics in a more consistent way. Currently, only about a third of agencies have been reporting their crime data to State Police.
Eventually, Bursten said the goal is to roll out a website where the public can look up crimes statewide, and in their area.
"If you have more information, you're able to put it together and look for patterns," Bursten said.
Taking steps to protect yourself against people who want your information
In the meantime, you may have to take steps to protect yourself. Crime is evolving, and victims like Knerr are seeing how fast it can affect you, especially as your information is stored in more places.
Walters pointed out that while in some cases you can't stop your information from being stolen, in many of the 6,000 annual cases he sees, steps could've been taken to prevent the crime.
"The public doesn't realize just how easy it is to assume somebody's identity," Walters said.
IMPD gave CBS4 this list of suggested steps you can take to better protect yourself:
- Keep all financial items (credit cards, checks and SS card) secured and out of sight, i.e. at work, at home when you have company or while traveling.
- Do not leave a purse or wallet inside of a vehicle. This invites a car break in and the cards will be used within the first 30 minutes before getting shut down.
- Lock the vehicles and secure those items inside of the trunk where available.
- If checkbooks are stolen from vehicles, report it immediately to the banks, so the bank can flag the checks that may be attempted to be cashed.
- Never give a credit card number to anyone over the phone, unless you are 100% sure it is a legitimate business purchase and that’s the only option of payment.
- NEVER give anyone your card or PIN to use with it.
- Review your credit card statements daily if possible, but for sure weekly. The quicker fraudulent transactions are identified, the more the loss can be minimized.
- Use cash when possible. This is the only true way to prevent credit card fraud.
- Put a credit freeze on your name with the three credit bureaus. This will prevent accounts being opened in your name.
- Run a credit check on your name quarterly.
- Shred all important documents with personal information on it.
- Check for skimmers on ATMs and gas pumps.
- Do not engage with door-to-door or phone solicitors.
- Use pre-paid gift cards at restaurants and stores.
If you do become a victim of fraud or a scam, you can report it to your local police agency, the Indiana Attorney General, and the Federal Trade Commission. You can also report internet crimes to the FBI's online Internet Crime Complaint Center.