There were 195 verified accounts of some form of identity theft or unauthorized credit card use in St. Charles Parish last year alone, many of which came from a hacker who stole customer information from Rotolo’s Pizzeria in Destrehan.
The Rotolo’s incident caused the number of identity and credit card thefts to rise dramatically in 2012. In contrast, 109 similar cases were reported in 2011 and 104 were reported in 2010.
St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office Det. Joe Dewhirst said police had to call in the Secret Service to deal with the Rotolo’s Pizzeria situation.
"We didn’t have an incident where you had an employee skimming cards. Their system got hacked from somebody outside. With them running the cards every day, whoever had their virus in the system was running the card numbers," he said. "I would say 50 to 75 victims in the parish had their information stolen."
Purchases made with the stolen account information were later traced to a sporting goods store in China, but by that time it was too late to find out who was responsible for the crime and too late to recover the funds.
Dewhirst said that it is difficult to catch criminals who are responsible for such crimes.
"The solvability rate – I can’t give you a number. It is pretty low, but we try everything we can in the Sheriff’s Office to actually solve these crimes," he said. "If it is above what we can do locally then we have the Secret Service."
Last week Dewhirst, along with a representative from the state Attorney General’s Office, convened at Grand Ridge Golf Club to give a presentation on how area residents can prevent becoming victims of identity theft.
Overall, Dewhirst said the best defense against identity theft is to not use debit cards for any purchases.
"I know it is a dying payment, but try to use cash," he said. "If you have to use your credit card, don’t use your debit card because that money is your money in your bank account."
Scam artists often gain access to bank accounts by stealing victims’ debit card information. Any money lost through unauthorized debit card use is not covered by banks because it is taken directly from the account rather than an intermediary such as a credit card company.
"Depending on how much someone has in their bank account, they can tap into it until it gets wiped out," he said. "Over time you’ve got 50 people and about a thousand bucks a pop. That is $50,000 for pretty much just typing on the keyboard."
Ryan LeBlanc, branch manager and owner of LeBlanc Wealth Management and LPL Financial, recounted his own experience with having his identity stolen.
"I only use a credit card now," he said. "They took my debit card, it was the pizza guy, and they had the information they needed to go online and do some damage. Over $11,000 later I learned my lesson."
Assistant Attorney General Lisha Landry said identity theft and unauthorized card use is a growing crime.
"It’s extremely difficult to catch a scam artist," she said. "Identity theft right now is the No. 1 reported complaint to the Federal Trade Commission and it is the fastest growing white collar crime."
According to the Federal Trade Commission, last year in Louisiana there were more than 3,000 reports of identity theft, ranking the state 27th in the nation.
Landry said scam artists who perpetrate identity thefts have a tendency to focus on senior citizens.
"They are going to prey on people they think are older because they are thinking this person has saved all of their lives, that they are retired and they have a nest egg," she said. "They’ll look through phone books and names that are associated with an older age group. If your name is Martha or Betty they’ll think this person is over the age of 60, which means they are retired and home right now."
A common way identities are stolen is by consumers freely giving their information over the phone to people they think are representing their interests, such as those posing as bank representatives claiming there is a problem with their bank account.
"We’ve had consumers give this random person their social security number, bank account, checking account, credit cards, mother’s maiden name - everything that a scam artist needs in order to steal the identity. The next day all of their money is wiped out of their account," Landry said.
Robert and Gail Price, a retired couple from Bayou Gauche, said they went through an identity theft situation a number of years ago when a restaurant employee stole their credit card information.
"A person at Shoney’s took our credit card number," Robert said.
The couple had no idea anything had happened until they got a phone call from their credit card issuer.
"The bank that called us, that’s how we found out," Gail said. "We are lucky the bank covered it. It could have been worse."
They consider themselves lucky because only their credit card information, not their debit card information, was stolen.
"We didn’t lose a nickel," Robert said.
The criminal who stole their information was ultimately caught.
"They charged something through their phone, so they weren’t real smart, and they happened to be a customer of the bank so that’s how the bank caught them," Robert said.
The Prices, who fall in the senior citizen category, said they get suspicious phone calls every day from people trying to get information from them.
When they suspect the calls are from a scammer, they know better than to give out their personal details because of their previous experience.
"These people are so smart, so we just want to be a little bit smarter," Robert said. "We’ve got more than credit cards now. We’ve got bigger accounts because we’re retired. I just want to make sure they can’t get to that so I don’t have to go back to work."