VALDOSTA -- Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America.

The Federal Trade Commission, the nation's consumer protection agency, released a survey in September that showed 27.3 million people have been victims of ID theft in the past five years. Last year alone, 9.9 million people were victims at an estimated cost of $48 billion for businesses and institutions, while the consumer victim reported $5 billion out-of-pocket expenses, according to the FTC.

On Tuesday, Valdosta State University's Valdosta State University's Students In Free

Enterprise organization and The Valdosta Daily Times sponsored a seminar on identity theft that featured speakers Tracy Jefferson and Henry Reeves, postal inspectors from the United States Postal Inspection Service; Velda Shackelford, law-enforcement coordination manager with the U.S. Department of Justice's Middle District of Georgia U.S. Attorney's office; Secret Service Agent Jim Maddux; and keynote speaker Assistant U.S. Attorney George R. Christian.

Jefferson and Reeves said identity theft is when a "crook steals key pieces of personal information, which may include a name, address, date of birth, Social Security number and mother's maiden name, to gain access to a person's financial accounts." They said when the person gets this type of information, the thief may open new credit or financial accounts, buy cars, apply for loans or Social Security benefits, rent an apartment or set up utility and phone services in someone else's name.

Christian said the nearly 200 people present for the seminar indicated that identity fraud is on the minds of many people. He said the number of people affected by the crime is rising daily.

"People can prevent future heartache and the need to straighten out their good name plus prevent lost money and time, by taking a few preventative methods," he said.

Christian identified methods information is taken from the person by use of the Internet. He said a company using the internet for account payments will not need personal information and a legitimate company won't ask for it.

eBay identity thieves: An account is set up to look like eBay to get personal information like date of birth, bank account information, etc. He said they don't need that kind of information and do not provide it.

"People need to think about the Internet in terms of who they are dealing with," he said. "You wouldn't provide that kind of information to someone who showed up at your door."

Christian said identify theft isn't always done by a stranger. He told a story about a college student who applied for a credit card. The application was denied because she already had two cards in her name that were over the limit. Investigation revealed her father had sent in pre-approved applications.

"Statistics reveals that 93 percent of identity theft is done by strangers, but the other seven percent is done by relatives, friends, and acquaintances," Christain said.

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