TAMPA — Identity theft may be a "faceless crime," but on Thursday, the victims had faces.
Dozens of people gathered in Tampa to learn how to guard against identity theft and pick up the pieces after being victimized. Consumer protection experts offered tips and listened to their stories.
Vickie Lynne of Tampa said she's a victim of tax fraud. Someone beat her to her return this year, and she had a frightening realization: A criminal had her Social Security number.
She went to Thursday's seminar, hosted by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, to find out how she could persuade police to write a report about the crime. She needed a police report number to freeze her credit file but said Tampa police had told her they couldn't write one.
"They said they used to, but because of the volume … " she said, her voice trailing off.
Another woman said the same thing had happened to her.
"I tried a week ago," Yemi Ogunsanya said.
Tampa police Detective Bernie Ginaitt was in the room. He said there must have been some miscommunication. The agency does take these reports, though it has trouble investigating claims.
The women went to the nearby district office after the seminar, heartened by his promise.
Answers weren't so easy for Calvin Brooks, 34, a former U.S. Army specialist.
Brooks said his identity was stolen in 2009 and issues with his credit still haven't been fixed. He also said someone beat him to his tax return a year ago, when he was serving in Afghanistan.
The stress of identity theft, he said, has been worse than serving abroad.
A Federal Trade Commission official at the seminar offered to work with Brooks.
Castor said she set up Thursday's seminar because tax fraud and identity theft are growing problems, especially in Florida. "The IRS says one-third of ID theft due to tax fraud is happening in the state of Florida," she said.
She hoped local residents could learn how to safeguard themselves against this crime.
Derick Rill, a congressional liaison with the FTC, and Debbie Brown, of Hillsborough's Consumer Protection Agency, both offered tips.
Don't give to a charity without researching it first. Don't wire money unless you're positive you know who's on the other end. Don't ever give personal information over the phone to anyone who calls you.
Rill even offered a rhyme: "If you don't initiate, investigate."
Add your name to the National Do Not Call Registry. Be persistent when it comes to dealing with identity theft issues. When disputing charges, always send your communication by certified mail, so you have a paper trail if the issue ever goes to court.
And if a debt collector comes after you for debt due to identity theft, don't cave in, Rill said.
"You're in charge," he said. "They need to prove the debt is yours."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433.