Police and public safety experts say identity theft is America's number one consumer crime. Locally, the Houston Police Financial Crimes Unit investigates an average of 20 thousand identity theft crimes a year. It's easy to commit because personal information is so easy for thieves to get. HPD Lt. Jesse Martinez says people need to treat their personal information like precious national secrets, and keep their guard up when they head into the crowded shopping malls and busy stores. Martinez says people using ATM's in public places are especially vulnerable.
Martinez urges people to buy a shredder, and use it, because ID thieves invented "dumpster diving" -- going through household trash to get cancelled checks, credit card receipts and bills -- all of which have bank and credit account numbers on them. The worst mistake people can make, he says, is to think it can't happen to them.
Martinez says people who shop at home on the telephone and on the Internet should be very careful about giving their credit card numbers and Social Security numbers out to people they don't know. Tele-shopping and OnLine Shopping online are generally safe he says, as long as people deal only with reputable companies with familiar names.