The 90-minute session, falling on the heels of last fall’s standing-room-only panel discussion on reverse mortgages, is again being co-sponsored by the Bradley County Bar Association, the Cleveland Bradley Public Library and the Bradley County Law Library Commission.
The event will begin at 7 p.m. in the Community Room of the downtown public library. It is expected to draw another large crowd because of the public’s vulnerability to these illegal acts which can destroy credit ratings and ruin lives.
Theme for the night will be “Identity Theft and Scams: How to Avoid Them and What to Do If You’re A Victim,” according to Jack Tapper, a Cleveland attorney who has coordinated the Legal Forums for the past few years. Tapper will moderate the three-member panel discussion, and he will serve as a panelist.
Because identity theft is expanding into new areas thanks to easier access to victims through technology, the night’s detailed — but audience-friendly — discussion will center on a variety of techniques used by scammers.
“A lot of people don’t realize there’s such a thing as medical identity theft,” Tapper said of one of the topics. “Your medical billing statements can alert you to it. Be sure to check your EOB (Explanation of Benefits) statement from your medical insurance and compare the ‘provider paid’ by the insurance with your own records of who provided medical services to you and when.”
He added, “Services that were not provided to you can indicate someone has used your medical identity.”
Such acts can be carried out by anyone with access to personal information in medical records or from information obtained from a lost or stolen wallet that contains medical insurance cards, Tapper said.
Another form of crime is “tax-related identity theft” that occurs when an offender uses another person’s Social Security number to get a job, and the offender’s new employer reports income on that number.
“If that person files an annual return earlier than you do, and gets a refund, and you file later for a refund on your real income, the IRS will send you a letter advising you have already filed,” Tapper explained. “That’s when your problems begin. We’ll show you what to do if that happens.”
Panelists will also explain the process when identity theft turns into debt collection and harassment for debts that were never legitimately incurred, and what can be done to stop it.
Another form of identity theft includes children.
“More common than most people would think is the practice of child identity theft,” Tapper stressed. “It’s hard to believe, but most of it starts with a family relative who faces a mountain of overdue bills and uses their child’s or niece’s or nephew’s Social Security number to obtain credit cards or to restore some vital service that was disconnected.”
The Cleveland attorney acknowledged, “It may start with intentions for the best interest of the family, but it can quickly snowball into a ruined credit record by the time the child reaches adulthood at age 18 and tries to obtain his or her first credit card. [People] need to know how to check a child’s credit report before the child reaches 18 and what to do about correcting the record if these thefts have occurred.”
Another major topic of discussion Tuesday will center on how to file fraud alerts on credit reports and put a freeze on credit records until a credit agency can obtain a person’s approval and verification for any new credit listing.
Panelists also will cover those so-called “free” credit reports that are advertised so commonly in today’s marketing world.
“We’ll show those in the audience how to obtain truly ‘free’ credit reports, not those from vendors charging you for so-called ‘free’ reports,” Tapper said. Legitimately “free” services come from the three national credit reporting agencies, he noted. Additional information will be provided on how to get maximum benefit in reviewing these reports throughout the year.
Joining Tapper on the panel will be Gary Cordell, director of the Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs, and Wayne Carter, assistant district attorney in the 10th Judicial District.
“[They] will expound on what to do if you, your spouse or child becomes an identity theft victim, and how to create an Identity Theft Report in coordination with the Federal Trade Commission, Tennessee Division of Consumer Affairs and local law enforcement authorities,” Tapper stressed.
Panelists will target emails, as well. The number of fraudulent messages going out continues to grow which is why the Community Legal Forum wants to address the issue.
“We all get emails every day from all kinds of sources, and some of them look real and official, with logos of major businesses as well as banks, advising that there has been an audit of their records and urging you to click on the link to verify your account information,” Tapper said. “Don’t do it or you’ll be falling into the trap for identity theft. We’ll show you how to spot these fakes.”
Telephone scams are another form of menace.
“We’ll discuss the scams out there for those telephone calls urging your donations to fake charities, or asking you to verify bank account information, as well as those scams advising you have won a money prize or a free vacation, requiring you to give Social Security numbers and an initial deposit,” he specified.
Scams continue to circulate in the postal mail. Tapper said one example is receiving an envelope bearing a return address from an alleged government agency with a Washington, D.C., address.
“... The letter makes you think you have to take some action, such as paying $59 to get a copy of a deed to your property because of some alleged issue that has been detected,” he explained. “The fact is, you can always get a copy of your deed free at the Register of Deeds Office, but if you send a check as requested, not only have you been hoodwinked out of money, the scam artists now have your identity information of your checking account and bank routing numbers, with names and phone numbers usually printed on your check.”
The Legal Forum also will review how the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) protects consumers “... from unfair or deceptive acts or practices of sellers of consumer goods obtained primarily for use by an individual for personal, family or household purposes,” Tapper said.
TCPA covers a variety of illegal practices like “bait and switch.” In this one, an advertisement lures a customer into buying a popular product at a cheap price, but then switches the customer to a more expensive item once he “bites” by not making available the product advertised.
Cases where sellers pass off goods as new, when in fact, they have been altered or reconditioned, is also an illegal practice. But a remedy is available.
“If the consumer can prove willful and intentional misrepresentation, not only can he or she recover actual damages, the seller will be liable to the buyer for treble damages (three times the actual damages), plus reasonable attorney’s fees and costs of lawsuit,” Tapper stressed.
TCPA also covers home improvement and repair contracts, and this extends to the sale or lease of real estate as well as personal services.
“Although there is a ‘lemon law’ involving only new cars that are found defective, the TCPA can apply to the sale of used cars if the sale was based on a deceptive, willfully false representation made at the time of sale,” Tapper noted.
The Legal Forum won’t be all about just the panelists. Audience members will be given the chance to interact and ask questions. As has been the practice in past forums, panelists are unpaid volunteers and their intent is not to provide legal advice on personal issues.
“[We can assure] that all audience participants will obtain a powerhouse of information that will turn them into wiser, more alert and informed consumers [with a newfound] ability to spot, deter and defend against the purveyors attempting to steal identities,” Tapper stressed.
Although admission is free, it is recommended that those planning to attend contact the library at 423-472-2163, ext. 126, to assure space remains available in the library’s Community Room. The facility generally can accommodate about 100 people.