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If headlines about decreasing crime rates have tempted you to lower your guard, it might be time to check your dead bolts. After dropping steadily throughout the '90s, crime appears to be on the upswing. In the first six months of last year, there were increases in car theft, rape and aggravated assault (crimes in which a person is seriously injured or a weapon is used in an attack), according to the FBI. Also becoming more common: identity theft, credit-card fraud and Internet-related crimes.
The situation may soon worsen. The generation now entering their late teens and early 20s-the most crime-prone years-is the largest since the baby boomers. And if the economy continues to weaken, unemployment and financial stress could breed new criminals.
But the news isn't all bad. Today, experts have a better understanding of what causes crime and are using more effective prevention programs, such as the "personal beat" system, in which police officers are assigned to monitor specific neighborhoods, as opposed to rotating neighborhoods, according to Jean O'Neil, director of research and evaluation at the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), in Washington, D.C. Still, we can't rely entirely on law enforcement to protect us. "We all play a role in making our communities safe," she says.
A representative from a collection agency calls about an unpaid bill from a credit-card company with whom you have no account, and you tell the caller she's made a mistake. When she asks you to verify the Social Security number on the account, the number she reads is yours. Alarmed, you:
A. Ask her to send you copies of the charges so that you can dispute them.
B.Contact all three major credit-reporting agencies to check your credit reports for errors, then call the police.
C.Close the account. Request copies of the original credit application and billing statements so you have documentation of the charges.
(B) and (C) Receiving a phone call from an unknown creditor is often the first tip-off that your identity has been stolen. Identity theft occurs when a criminal uses your name, birth date and Social Security number to obtain credit cards, loans, utility services or even a driver's license.
Explain that the account was opened fraudulently and must be closed immediately, advises Mari J. Frank, a lawyer and privacy consultant in Laguna Niguel, California, who wrote The Identity-Theft Survival Kit (Porpoise Press, 1998). Ask for the address on the account, which may help track down the culprit. It's also smart to request copies of the original credit application and other documents for your files.
Next, call the fraud hotlines of the three major credit-reporting agencies-Equifax (800-525-6285), Trans Union (800-680-7289) and Experian (888-397-3742). Ask them to put a fraud alert on your credit profile, which helps stop further credit from being issued without your approval. Also request copies of your report so you can compile a list of the fraudulent accounts opened in your name. Next, close each account and file a report with local police. Be sure to follow up phone calls to creditors with a certified letter.
How common is identity theft? "It's the fastest-growing crime in America," says Frank. The number of consumers who contacted Trans Union's Fraud Victim Assistance Department skyrocketed from 35,000 in 1992 to more than 1 million in 2000.
How does it happen? A clerk could gain access to your personal information at your doctor's office, or a crook might find old bills in your trash. In a typical case, you won't realize that your identity has been stolen for an average of 14 months because you never receive a bill; the impostor usually lists his own address or a mail-drop location on the application. Your only hint may be when a creditor calls you.
To minimize your risk, don't divulge personal information, such as your birth date or Social Security number, online or on the phone. Shred bills and other documents that contain personal information before tossing them, and call 888-567-8688 (a service operated jointly by the major credit-reporting agencies) to opt out of preapproved credit offers. If your bank or any creditors use your mother's maiden name as a password, change it-family names are easy to dig up. Finally, review your credit reports at least once a year. They are free in some states; in others they can cost up to $8.50 each. For more information about identity theft, check out www.consumer.gov/idtheft, www.privacyrights.org or www.identitytheft.org.
Three days a week, you jog in a neighborhood park. While you're stretching, another jogger stops beside you. He makes a vulgar sexual comment, then grabs you. You:
A.Kick, scream and do whatever it takes to get away.
B.Yell for help, but don't struggle or risk making him angrier.
C.Stay calm and try to talk your way out of the situation.
(A) Only a woman faced with a potential rape can decide what's best for her, but research has shown that some responses are better than others. "There's strong evidence that fighting, screaming and trying to flee are effective," says Sarah Ullman, Ph.D., an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois, at Chicago. Her research indicates that physical resistance doesn't make the offender more violent.
Nearly one in six women is raped at some point in her life, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. There was a small increase (less than 1 percent) in rape in the first half of 2000. Teenage girls are particularly vulnerable; the risk of being forcibly raped peaks at age 14, according to the FBI. That may be because child sexual assault is more likely to be reported to police, but it also can be attributed to the fact that young victims' defenses are easier to overcome than those of adults. The crime typically occurs at a residence, and more than seven out of 10 victims know the rapist.
Most rapes are accomplished without weapons or violence. When weapons are used, they're usually meant to ensure compliance rather than to harm or kill the victim. In any case, don't count on talking your way out of the situation. "Research shows that pleading and reasoning lead to an even higher probability of rape," says Ullman. A weak verbal response may unwittingly feed an attacker's need to feel powerful.
Can you avoid rape? Experts advise being aware of your surroundings and staying in well-lit areas. In addition, if a potential rapist tries to have his way with you, say no. "There are men who believe that women like to be roughed up during sex," says Mary P. Koss, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. If the man persists, try to escape to a more public place. If you can't get away, scream for help.
There's been a rash of robberies in your neighborhood. What's the best way to protect your family?
A. Install dead-bolt locks on every door.
B. Buy an alarm system.
C. Get a dog.
(A) A secure door is your first line of defense against burglary. In addition to installing dead-bolt locks, be sure the door, frame and hinges are sturdy and that everyone in your family uses the locks. "Between forty and fifty percent of burglaries are accomplished through unlocked doors or windows," says Jean O'Neil. Surprisingly, 40 percent of homes don't have dead-bolt locks or have them only on main entry doors, according to the NCPC.
If you're considering an alarm system, there's an important caveat to keep in mind. When activated, some systems use your phone line to call the central monitoring station, where an operator will try to rule out a false alarm by calling your house. If the operator doesn't receive an answer, he will call the police. That's fine-if no one is home. But if you're in the house and hear the intruder, you won't be able to call 911 immediately unless you have a second phone line.
Like an alarm system, a barking dog can warn you-and your neighbors-if someone tries to break into your home. Studies have found that the noise generated by small, territorial dogs, such as Yorkshire terriers, is often enough to deter burglars.
For additional strategies on protecting your home, call your police department and ask for a free security assessment.
Your 12-year-old daughter spends a lot of time on the computer. One day you walk into her room and notice that she's reading a sexually explicit e-mail message from someone who says he wants to meet her in person. Your next step is to:
A.Alert the sender's Internet Service Provider.
B.Call the police to report that you suspect that an adult posing as a teen is using the Internet to try to lure your daughter.
C.Take away your daughter's computer privileges.
(B) If you think a sexual predator is using the Internet to lure your daughter, call the police, advises Ruben Rodriquez, director of the exploited-child unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), in Alexandria, Virginia.
Unfortunately, more and more parents will be forced to evaluate these types of messages as Internet usage grows. In a study funded by the NCMEC, nearly one in five Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17 reported receiving unwanted sexual advances online.
If the police aren't helpful, contact the NCMEC's CyberTipline (www.cybertipline.com or 800-843-5678), which will help you evaluate the situation. Don't delete any of the messages or photos sent to your daughter; you may need them as evidence. To make a criminal case, authorities must prove the person knew he was communicating with someone under 18.
Alerting the individual's Internet Service Provider (ISP), gleaned from his e-mail address, is another step you can take. Most ISPs will either warn the offender or terminate his account.
Think twice before taking away your child's computer privileges. Instead, help her learn how to use it safely. Discuss ways that an adult posing as a teen might try to gain her trust. Rodriquez also recommends moving the computer into a public area of the house. Technology that blocks, monitors or filters Web sites, e-mail messages or chats may also be useful.
After work, you drive to the mall to pick up a birthday gift. When you return to the parking lot, you spot someone breaking into your car. Your best response is to:
A.Yell, "Help! Police!" as you run toward your car to get the thief to flee.
B. Take a good look at the crook so you can describe his appearance to the authorities, then call 911.
C.Yell, "Get away from my car!" from a safe distance to let the thief know he's been spotted.
If you spot someone trying to steal your car, take a good look at the crook, advises Detective Jeff Cohee, an auto-theft specialist in the Overland Park, Kansas, police department. Memorize his approximate age, race, clothing, height and weight. Police need a description to make the case. Next, call 911 immediately.
For many victims, the first impulse is to run toward the thief and scream. Don't do it, says Cohee-you risk a potentially dangerous confrontation. If you decide to alert the thief that you're on to him, do it from a safe distance and only after getting a description and calling the police.
Auto theft increased for the first time in eight years in early 2000, according to the FBI. To prevent theft, lock your car doors and roll up the windows. Never leave the vehicle running unattended. And consider extra security measures if you live in an area where auto-theft rates are higher than average or if you drive a model that's popular with thieves, such as the Honda Accord.
For theft-prevention tips, visit the National Insurance Crime Bureau's Web site at www.nicb.com.Take the safety challenge
For more information on protecting your family, watch the Court TV Safety Challenge 2001 on Tuesday, June 5 at 10 p.m. Also check Court TV's Web site: www.CourtTV.com.