Havre Daily News
State and federal officials were in Havre on Wednesday to educate consumers about the growing problem of identity theft and fraud.
Scam artists can con residents over the phone, through the mail and on the Internet. The lesson, officials said, is to stay informed and be wary of giving out important information.
If it sounds too good to be true, they warned, it probably is.
Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath said consumers can protect themselves from identity theft by being careful with their personal information. Be wary of e-mails or phone calls that seem to originate from banks and Web sites, asking for account numbers and other information.
“Don't give out your personal information unless you've initiated the contact,” McGrath said.
McGrath said his office recently gained authority over consumer protection enforcement. It's an important change for Montanans, he said, because the Attorney General's Office has extensive contacts with law enforcement agencies and prosecuting attorneys, who can work together to protect consumers.
“That gives us an opportunity to emphasize consumer issues with law enforcement,” McGrath said. “Identity theft is the fastest-growing white collar crime in America. Montana is no exception. It creates incredible problems for the people who are victimized by that crime.”
Often, victims of identity theft are left with severe credit problems that must be addressed. To that end, McGrath has put together an Identity Theft Passport program. The passports can be taken to credit agencies and banks to show that the holder has been a victim of identity theft and can help with disputed credit report items, he said.
“This is a huge benefit to people who are victims of these crimes,” McGrath said. “It's a nightmare if this happens to you.”
State Auditor John Morrison provided tips on avoiding identity theft and fraud, crimes he said are growing more common. His office combats such crimes with community education and “aggressive” lawenforcement, he said.
“Advances in technology and communication create new opportunities for scam artists,” he said. “We shut them down as fast as we can, but they will always pop back up.”
Morrison said the best strategy for fighting consumer fraud is educating residents and investors on strategies to protect themselves.
“The state Auditor's Office is in the law enforcement business, but we know the best kind of law enforcement is keeping the crime from finding the victim in the first place,” Morrison said.
Morrison promoted his InvestSmart program, a public education initiative aimed at protecting investors from fraud. The program offers tips on avoiding identity theft and fraud, and offers resources, including questions to ask over the phone when considering an investment.
“It's a public education program - information for investors to help them stay out of harm's way,” Morrison said.
The program has a Web site, and people can call (800) 603-6035 to get more information.
Wednesday's seminar was coordinated by the AARP, and many of the about 40 people in attendance were senior citizens.
“A lot of times, seniors are a lot easier to target,” AARP associate state director Alex Ward said. Senior citizens are more likely to be home during the day to answer the phone, and computer use among older folks is becoming more common, he said.
“I think the unfortunate thing is, there's so many scams ... it becomes hard for people to avoid them all,” Ward said.
Havre was the third stop for the educational tour. Speakers have addressed audiences in Sidney and Billings and will soon head to Kalispell. Ward said AARP is developing a long-term plan to educate Montanans about white collar crime. The broad range of speakers, he said, offers many resources for seniors and other residents.
“It's good for people to know where to go when they need to talk to somebody,” he said.
On the Web: www.investsmartmt.org