Jerry McClernon, who worked 20 years for the New York City Police Department and then later for the federal government, says identity theft has grown into a crime whose perpetrators target the elderly.
"Your identity is probably the most important possession you have," said McClernon, president of the local chapter of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees. "So, please, don't let anyone take it from you."
On Monday afternoon, members of McClernon's group filled the fellowship hall at the First Presbyterian Church in Inverness to hear local SunTrust bank representatives discuss personal privacy protection and provide tips for preventing identity theft.
In 2003, Florida ranked fifth highest in the nation, between Texas and New York, among states with the highest population percentage of identity theft victims.
Miami ranked highest among Florida cities, with 2,238 identity theft victims _ more than the number of victims in Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale combined, according to the Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse.
Citrus residents file reports on identity theft about once each week, and most of the identity-related crimes originate outside of the county, according to Citrus County sheriff's Sgt. Chris Evan.
Despite the odds, residents should take precautionary measures to protect themselves. "Anyone can become a victim," Evan said during an interview.
In Florida, victims generally fall between the ages of 18 and 49. Credit card fraud is the prevailing way in which victim information is misused, followed by phone or utility fraud and bank fraud.
In 2003, the Clearinghouse reported that 14,199 Florida residents were reportedly the victims of identity theft, with 20 percent of them experiencing more than one type of theft. "There are a lot of people out there trying to steal your money," said Mary Pericht, branch manager of the Inverness SunTrust bank on U.S. 41 S, during the presentation Monday. "We lose more money to identity theft than if someone tries to rob the bank."
Criminals commit identity theft by obtaining personal information from a victim's purse, wallet, mail or home. Bank representatives warned that people have even been exploited by family members.
Perpetrators will "Dumpster-dive" to gain access to account information, so be sure to shred and cross-shred everything.
"Anybody who calls you or asks for your information, there's an immediate red flag," said Evan. He suggests residents try to get as much information from that caller as possible, and offer very little in return.
Be wary of callers who identity themselves as representatives of banks or credit card companies and ask for certain information to which they already should have access.
"Well, why would SunTrust or any other bank want to know your information?" Pericht asked the group of retirees. "We know everything but your blood type."
Once someone's identity is stolen, the offender can open up new credit card, bank and cellular telephone accounts, receive automotive or furniture loans, or falsely present themselves to police. That's why residents should scrutinize the legitimacy of all Web sites they do business with, check monthly statements right away and use a sharp eye to review charges.
If residents doubt the legitimacy of an e-mail or Web site, Evan invites them to e-mail their questions to crimepreventionsheriffcitrus.org.
"I think the key is: one, not sharing any information; two, pass-wording what you can; three, checking your credit at least once a year," Evan said. "Someone could open up a credit card in your area, receive that statement at another address, and you would have no idea until you run a credit check."
Evan also suggests residents check the legality of their driver's license by linking to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Web site using http://www.myflorida.com.
Also, lock your mailboxes; but if you don't, retrieve your mail in a timely manner.
Victims of identity theft should file reports with law enforcement and call credit card companies, credit bureaus and all affected parties as soon as possible.
"As long as you follow proper procedure, you're not held responsible," said Christina Giacalonne, branch manager of the SunTrust bank in Citrus Hills. "The bank will stand behind you."
After Monday's lecture, Carolyn Angelotti, 78, said she doesn't think she'll be falling victim to any form of identity theft.
"You can't worry about every little thing," said Angelotti, who says she doesn't use the Internet or a computer. "I'll be sorry if they steal my identity, but I just have so much that I can deal with."