UT's Center for Identity tracking thieves

Just how safe is your financial information? Austin police say it's not if you'll be a victim of credit or debit card fraud, but when. In this week's Crimewatch, Noelle Newton talks with researchers at UT who are tracking the people who commit these crimes and shares their advice.

In April of last year, police say three men went into Nordstrom Rack in Northwest Austin and opened a credit card under someone else's name.

The next day they would go to the Nordstrom store at Barton Creek Mall and use that card. Store security called police who then arrested the men.

Detective Jim Patterson says Douglas Bullock, Jason Ellison and Patrick George were involved in a theft ring out of New York. They had victims all across the country.

"The most egregious behavior was they were making fake IDs, taking those peoples' information and withdrawing money directly out of their bank accounts," said Patterson.

All have since been convicted of engaging on organized criminal activity.

"It's a very kind of invasive crime to have someone steal something from you or use your card. They're stealing your money. You're going to get your money back, but it's the principal of the matter. They thought that someone would do that. Steal from you," said Patterson.

The financial crimes unit at APD receives 500 new cases per month.

"I don't think it's a matter of if but when your card gets compromised or used," said Patterson.

According the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the odds of you being a victim of ID theft in a year are 1 in 20. The odds of your child's personally identifying information being misused before 18 is 1 in 40.

Researchers at the Center for Identity at UT want to change those odds for the better.

"We're working on a project that builds a database that tracks processes out there and looks at how is the criminal accessing this information, once they've accessed that information what other information are they able to get from it um, and looking at both the economic impact the emotional impact the societal impact of those processes."

When it comes to protecting your personal data online, Katie Stevens says start with creating more difficult passwords.

"It is extremely important not to use the same password in a number of places," said Stevens. "Do not use the same password on your Facebook account as you use on your bank account."

Stevens says try using pass phrases instead of words to help you remember.

She also recommends using two factor authentication.

If that means answering security questions, make them tougher to crack. If your answer is your mother's maiden name--use 3s in place of the Es.

Stevens says it's worth the extra effort. Stealing personal information is big business.

"There's a whole place out there called the dark web. So, people are stealing this information and then they're putting it up for sale," said Stevens.

Social security numbers are very valuable. Stevens says you rarely need to write them down and don't feel pressured to.

"Social security numbers unless you're receiving your insurance from the federal government. Social security numbers are no longer linked to your health insurance information," said Stevens.

But even if you do everything right, fraud can happen to you. If it does, APD will be there to help.

"We try to pick up the pieces where we can," said Patterson.

Detective Patterson recommends you check your credit report once a year from the three credit bureaus--Equifax, Experian and Transunion.
    
Federal law says you are entitled to a free credit report once a year from each of those.
    
Patterson recommends doing one credit check every four months.
    
If any accounts are there that you're not aware of, contact those companies.

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