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Crime at lowest rate, users be wary on Internet

By C. Todd Lopez

BOLLING AIR FORCE BASE, Washington, D.C. (May 17, 2007) -- Crime is at it's lowest rate in 30 years, but Internet-related crimes and identity theft are rising, said Terri Kelly, of the National Crime Prevention Council.

"About 10 million households were victims (of identity theft) during the first six months of 2006," she said. "That's a pretty daunting thing to think about when we didn't even address this crime in any fundamental way in terms of our awareness in the general public, as little as three to five years ago."

On average, the cost to victims of identity theft came to more than $6,000, though that figure doesn't include the cost of reestablishing credit, Kelly said.

"That figure doesn't touch on the dozens or more hours people spend reestablishing their credit history in a more positive way -- money is just one piece of that," she said.

Kelly is managing director of community outreach and government relations for NCPC, the agency responsible for introducing "McGruff the Crime Dog" into public awareness some 30 years ago. She visited Bolling Air Force Base May 14 to discuss Internet safety, including online identity theft.

According to Kelly, the most common victims of identity theft include 18-29 year olds. The reason for that, she said, is that age group has just begun moving from their parent's home, has just begun setting up credit and accounts, and tends to be more casual with how they release personal information.

"We want to make people aware, so they can be a little less casual in how they secure their personal information," she said. "Some stuff is called personal information, because it should be kept personal and private."

Kelly made suggestions on how Airmen and their families could prevent themselves from becoming victims of identity theft. Some of those suggestions included not using credit cards on Web sites unless those Web sites are encrypted; reviewing credit reports at least once a year; securing outgoing postal mail by putting it in a locked box, when possible; cleaning or sanitizing computer hard drives of financial and personal information before sending computers out for service or selling them; canceling credit cards that haven't been used for six months; and shredding important documents and unsolicited mail before throwing those things away.

"People actually do that dumpster diving thing -- digging through people's trash," she said. "Some of that stuff, you don't necessarily know without opening it, if it may be an unsolicited credit card application or financial application -- a pre-approved whatever. If you don't go so far as to open it, to find that out, and wholesale throw it away, those documents may be being taken and used to destroy somebody's credit."

Kelly also made suggestions on how Airmen can protect their children from online predators.

"One of the things we are most worried about at NCPC, is that 1 in 5 kids admits to having been solicited online in some way -- and by that I mean sexually solicited," she said. "That includes comments they didn't understand, or that they may have come to understand. That's a pretty daunting thing. The more important part about that, is that most of those kids also said they didn't tell anybody."

Kelly said that she believes the Internet is a great and powerful tool for youth, but that youth must be educated that many of the same rules that apply to the real world also apply online. She said frank discussions with kids about the logic of giving out information about themselves online is a good defense.

"The easiest way is to be really concrete," she said. "If you were in the middle of the mall, would you go up and say 'hi, my name's Terri, I'm 11 and this is where I go to elementary school?' No. Who you want to be talking to or intend to be talking to online, you can't verify because they are not in front of you. In that situation, they are a stranger because you haven't been introduced to them in a way that helps you get familiarity with them, and in a way you can trust."