By DOUG WILSONHerald-Whig Senior Writer
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked a crowd of about 75 regional leaders whether they have transaction alerts on their debit or credit cards.
Only about four hands went up, giving Madigan the chance to drive home her point at Thursday's consumer fraud and identity theft roundtable.
"It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when you'll be a victim of identity theft," Madigan said.
Transaction alerts are one easy step that consumers can take to safeguard their finances. Banks or credit card companies will sent a simple text alert if an expenditure exceeds a spending limit set by the customer. If a fraudulent charge occurs, the customer can call the issuer of the card and ward off more transactions.
"We get about 200,000 calls per year from people with complaints or questions," Madigan said.
Somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 of those callers eventually file a formal complaint with the attorney general's office. A large and rising number of those complaints involve identity theft. The crime has become so prevalent that Madigan, the state's top legal advocate since 2003, launched an identity theft unit and hotline in 2006. The unit since has handled more than 40,000 cases and more than $26 million in fraudulent charges.
Identity theft often occurs when a person's credit cards are stolen, but it also can occur when information is obtained and criminals create new accounts in someone else's name. Financial institutions and credit card companies also can be vulnerable.
Madigan said the agency's special unit works with companies to encrypt their information files and not hold sensitive customer information longer than it is needed.
"It is much easier to prevent identity theft than to take the time and hassle to clean it up," she said.
One new wrinkle in identity theft and identity fraud is the involvement of international teams who hack into large information bases and then sell the information to identity thieves. The breach of Target Corporation's computer system was one of the larger examples of information theft.
John Wood Community College hosted Madigan's roundtable. JWCC President Mike Elbe told participants it was the largest of 13 such events sponsored by the attorney general's office.
Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, credited Madigan's office with tackling the abuse of payroll cards, an emerging form of financial fraud.
"When she finds something that's wrong, she's like a bulldog," Sullivan said.