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Identity theft complaints rise in Ohio

Ohioans are filing more identity theft complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, but complaints of other types of fraud have declined, according to a new report from the agency.

Identity theft complaints in Ohio rose 19 percent last year, driven primarily by a spike in complaints related to government documents or benefits fraud, while overall complaints dipped.

But FTC complaints only capture a fraction of the true number of fraud and identity theft crimes. The FTC also cannot help most local victims of fraud because the agency does not have the capability or resources to do so.

But experts said state and federal laws provide many legal protections for consumers, and Ohioans should know their rights.

Last year, the FTC received 59,019 consumer fraud and identity theft complaints from Ohio, including 4,176 from the Dayton metro area; 10,119 from the Cincinnati-Middletown metro area; and 659 from the Springfield metro area.

Complaints were down slightly from 61,972 in 2011. But the FTC still received about 20,000 more complaints from Ohioans last year than in 2010.

In Ohio, the most common type of consumer fraud complaint regarded debt collection (6,025) and banks and lenders (4,206).

Ohioans also made 8,891 identity theft complaints last year, up from 7,479 in 2011. Government documents or benefits fraud was the most common type of complaint, followed by credit card identity fraud and phone or utilities fraud.

Overall fraud complaints dipped only slightly last year in Ohio, but the decline may partly be a result of frustration with the inability of the FTC to assist local consumers, some local attorneys said.

The FTC mostly collects data about allegations of fraud, and it only takes action against the worst, habitual offenders.

“For the average consumer, filing anything with the Federal Trade Commission is a waste of time, because they are in Washington and don’t care what happens in Dayton,” said Ron Burdge, owner of Burdge Law Office in Dayton. “They are only concerned about systematic violations of the law that they can curb… They are not empowered to do anything about the car dealer in Dayton who is ripping people off.”

Difficulty to track fraud offenders

Many victims of fraud do not take any action to report or remedy unfair consumer practices because they do not believe their efforts will make any difference, Burdge said. Other victims believe they do not have the money to fight misdeeds in court, he said.

But Burdge said Ohioans have plenty of options to fight back against fraud and consumers should learn their legal rights. He said Ohio has strong consumer protection laws, and residents who lost money to scams and fraud often are entitled to damages or recovery obtainable through litigation. He said criminal prosecutions also are possible in some cases.

Legal experts agree that identity theft is spreading at an alarming rate, and government benefits and tax refunds are popular targets of thieves.

“These types of cases very often involve the use of Social Security numbers making them more complex than other types of identity theft,” said Eva Casey Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit based in California. “As we are fully into tax season, we anticipate that there will continue to be increases in the reporting of this crime.”

The increase in complaints of government identity theft likely reflects both an increase in the activity and a greater awareness and reporting of it, the center said.

Identity theft can be financially devastating, and cleaning up the damage it causes to credit reports and other parts of a person’s financial life can take months or longer, said Amy Wells, attorney and president of Wells Law Office in Dayton.

“We get people who call us who just found their dream home, but they didn’t realize they were a victim of identity theft and now they have all these credit report errors and they may lose their home,” she said. “Or people apply for a job, but a background check finds all this information that is not attributable to them, so they don’t get the job.”

Wells said consumers should be on the lookout for signs that they may be a victim of identity theft. She said one red flag is receiving phone calls about debt that does not belong to consumers. Inexplicable denials for credit cards or other forms of credit is another telltale sign of trouble. Consumers should also check their credit reports at least once a year.

“Protect your financial information,” she said.

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