Wednesday, August 17, 2011

‘Cyber Patrols’ are the new Neighborhood Watch for ID Theft

Being social just isn’t what it once was. And neither is helping keep your neighbors safe from crime. And as crime begins to blossom, one of the first things that may spring up is a case we know and fear all too well: Identity theft. While identity theft is often represented under the umbrella of internet crimes, this is not always the case. Mail fraud has been, and most likely will continue to be, a major cause of identity theft.  In essence, it is important to protect both your computer and your front door.

There is token good news, though. Identity theft is currently on the decline — down 28%, according to a report by Javelin Strategy & Research. But that still represents a whopping 8.1 million cases. That’s 8.1 million people who at one point or another had someone else pretend to be them. By getting a hold of your personal information, these thieves open credit cards, purchase cell phones and commit a plethora of other crimes that tie back directly to your good name.

Is there any hope? Small town residents are nodding their heads. Remember those Neighborhood Watch programs? Once a trend in big cities like New York and Chicago, particularly in higher crime areas, these self-appointed keepers of the law saw their numbers dwindle as better security systems became available and increased funding for police departments took hold in the 1980s. And now, with identity theft representing such a huge slice of the crime pie in this last decade, neighbors are back to helping neighbors.

This time, though, they’re bigger and better and more technologically savvy than ever. With a little high-tech addition called “Cyber Patrolling,” some neighborhoods are beginning to employ both crime watchers outside and those who report hacking online. Now, besides keeping a watchful eye out for anyone caught snooping around your home, mailbox, or garbage; neighbors are alerting neighbors to threats emanating from their phones and computers, too.

Take Andy Wang. He’s the block captain in southern Los Altos, Calif. And, according to an article in the Los Altos Town Crier, he reports that his Neighborhood Watch Program proved most beneficial when an allegedly fraudulent telemarketer tried to retrieve personal information from his wife.

“He claimed to be tech support trying to get my wife to go to a website and give her identity away,” Wong told the Crier, noting that he immediately forwarded an email to his neighborhood group alerting them to the scam. “I think ID theft is a big thing we need to be more vigilant about.”

With cyber crime all around, credit information laying in your recyclables, and telemarketers asking way too much, explains why neighborhood watch programs, popular some 20years ago, are once again gaining popularity. While the “small town” location used to act as a safeguard from fraud: the internet makes crime an equal opportunity provider. With merely a laptop computer and a few pieces of identification, thieves can steal identities from Brooklyn, N.Y. to Los Altos, CA.

In California, police are encouraging communication among neighbors through activities such as potlucks and mailing lists to help combat crime. The 30,000-resident city boasts 95 block captains. The police force is instructing residents to keep a close watch on what’s going on in their areas.

The same rules apply nationwide. If you see suspicious activity, police say good descriptions of the perpetrator helps. Paying attention to details can make all the difference between whether or not an arrest is made.

So, how do you start a Cyber Patrol?

  • Chat with your neighbors. It’s very difficult to watch and alert a neighborhood as a lone wolf.
  • Head home from work a little early one evening and introduce your idea to your neighbors. Find out who is interested by visiting them door-to-door. Bring a buddy with you, no matter how confident you may be with knocking on doors.
  • Discuss crime problems in your area, explain the value of starting a cyber watch initiative, and determine a good time and place for your first meeting. Keep a list of everyone’s preferences and write down their comments.
  • Call your local police department and let them know of your interest in starting a cyber watch program. Depending on where you live, something of the sort may already exist. If it doesn’t, it always helps to get an officer on board. That way, once the cyber-safety-hunt gets going you’ll have a direct contact in law enforcement.
  • Use the internet to your advantage. Start a private neighborhood blog and/or email notifications or texts to alert those participating any time something suspicious occurs.
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