With the approaching Christmas and tax seasons, federal and state authorities are calling on people to safeguard their personal information from identity thieves.
Thieves use any number of ways to get personal identifying information, from ripping off mailboxes to picking through trash to "phishing," which is sending consumers "urgent" e-mails to get them to turn over personal information or passwords for online accounts.
"They’ll take the easiest way they can get it," Dan Drake, a prosecutor with the office of U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton, said Friday. "They’re very resourceful."
Speaking at news conference Friday to publicize the issue of identity theft, Charlton said the state ranks first in the nation for identity theft per capita.
The problem stems from a high number of methamphetamine users in the state, said Doug Hilburn, a U.S. postal inspector who leads the Arizona Identity Theft Task Force, which includes federal and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.
When police search the homes of identity thieves, they usually find evidence of methamphetamine use or production, Hilburn said. They use the proceeds from identity theft to buy drugs.
The average victim spends more than $1,000 to cope with the damage, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Authorities said they hope a new federal law that requires a mandatory minimum of two years in prison for identity theft and caution on the part of consumers will decrease the number of thefts.
Attorney General Terry Goddard said the Christmas season brings with it more opportunities for thieves because people use their credit more frequently.
Drake said his agency typically sees an increase in mail theft late in the holiday season and into the following year, mostly because the mail is full of forms from the Internal Revenue Service and employers that usually contain Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other identifying information.
Drake offered tips to secure personal information.
He suggested properly storing information and destroying old information, such as checks and bank statements; not responding to people who call or e-mail and ask for personal information; taking mail in daily; and stopping mail, or having a trusted person gather it, if leaving town.
He said to always keep an eye on personal belongings and credit cards in stores and restaurants.
"If you want to pay for a meal in a restaurant, go up to the front desk and give them the card up there," Drake said. "It will work up there just as well as it would if you gave it to someone who walks out of your sight."