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Meeting Focuses On Identity Theft
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Identity theft is a huge and spreading crime that affects nearly everyone sooner or later and cannot be entirely prevented but can be reduced by taking care, a Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department detective told Riverbank residents at a recent Neighborhood Watch meeting.

Local police have been presenting monthly meetings on various topics with the aim of encouraging citizens to form groups and help police protect their neighborhoods against crime through information and a sharp eye and ear for suspicious circumstances.

Child Safety is the subject planned for the May 12 meeting, 7 p.m. at the Riverbank Community Center.

While previous gatherings have drawn 30 to 40 people, the April 15 meeting was disappointing in drawing scarcely half a dozen. Local officers went ahead, however, in introducing an expert on identity theft, Detective Joe Knittel of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department and helping answer questions.

Identity theft, according to a booklet published by the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force, Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department, Turlock Police Services and Modesto Police Department, occurs when someone appropriates your personal information without your knowledge to commit fraud or theft. It can happen when the identity theft involves acquiring key pieces of someone's identifying information such as name and Social Security number in order to impersonate them.

Unlike your fingerprints, which are unique to you and cannot be given to someone else for their use, your personal data, especially your Social Security number, your bank account or credit card number, your telephone calling card number and other valuable identifying data can be used to personally profit at your expense if they fall into the wrong hands.

It can happen during the simple, social convention of paying the bill for a restaurant meal with a credit card and handing the card to a waiter to take out of your sight for a few seconds or minutes to compile a receipt. Unscrupulous - make that criminally inclined - waiters have been known to carry their own palm-sized device called a skimmer to record and store your credit card number and other information with a single swipe, said Knittel.

He also talked about the pitfalls of automatic teller machines that criminals can fit with a fence, a strip of plastic, so when you insert your card, you get your money but the criminal gets your card number when he comes to remove the device just after you've left. Knittel advised shaking the machine a little and feeling around with your fingers. Take precautions, he added, about people looking over your shoulder to read your PIN number. That can also be done with binoculars from a distance.

The detective and the informative booklet, available from law enforcement offices everywhere, both stress the importance of protecting your Social Security number besides credit card and bank account numbers and ensuring personal financial papers carrying those numbers are always shredded and never just discarded into a waste bin or Dumpster.

Knittel, in fact, noted he had been 'skimmed' at a restaurant on an official journey north when he used his card identified as belonging to the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. Discovering excess charges, Knittel set a trap at that restaurant and caught the criminal.