Identity Theft

Recently I heard a police officer speak at a Friends of the Library meeting about identity theft. He also gave some anti-burglary tips. In our community, the number one crime is vehicle burglary. Identity theft is number two, and home burglaries are number three.

To avoid number one, his main advice is “Don’t leave valuables in your car.”

People are especially vulnerable to identity theft during tax season, which is now. Filing by email has led to a huge problem in theft. He gave an example of a foreclosed house which was the site of 35 email refunds from the IRS. Refunds are often sent to scammers. How do they get your information?

The officer gave your doctor’s office as an example. Say your doctor hires a temporary employee. That person has access to all your personal files. Ask the front desk about privacy issues and what happens to the data you provide.

People steal information from credit card readers, reproduce new credit cards with your info, and sell these on the street. Examine your credit card and bank statements for unfamiliar transactions.   credit cards

Warning signs: You start receiving bills for items you didn’t purchase or statements from collection agencies for debts that aren’t yours. You are denied credit. Your bank or credit card statements stop arriving.

Thieves will go through your trash so make sure you shred anything potentially important. They’ll break into cars and steal information. Doctor’s offices and other places where you do business are vulnerable. So are Internet purchases, credit card transactions, and even PayPal. Scammers will get your attention with a fabricated website that looks like the real thing. Be very careful of links you click on. Check the URL for false trails.

Be very vigilant in protecting yourself. Always initiate a transaction; don’t click on a link sent to you in an email. Warning sign: After visiting a website, you get repeated emails about a product. Or you get a phone call from the company wanting to sell you something. You will be safer if you contact the company yourself at the outset.

Look at the URL for an “https” or a gold padlock symbol to show the transaction is safe. Make sure you use protection software for your computer and mobile devices. Shred any important papers. If you don’t own a shredder, try putting the papers in the kitchen sink and soaking them with water so the ink fades.

Are Identity Monitoring Services worth the money? Not if they do what you can do for yourself.

Be wary of kids selling magazines at your door. This is a known scam; they may be hired to collect personal information which you use when placing an order.

More prevention tips: Stash personal information when you have workmen in the house. Be wary of giving anyone your social security info, driver’s license number, birth certificate, or passport number until the source is verified. Don’t put any of this info on a credit card receipt or on your checks, including your phone number. Don’t give important info to a phone caller whom you do not know or over a cellular network. Do not send your social security number or any other personal information to an unknown source that you haven’t initiated contact with yourself.

The Florida Attorney’s Office keeps records of scams and frauds. Contact them to see if an offer is legitimate. If it sounds too good to be true (i.e. you’ve won a million dollars but we need you to send us $$), it probably is.

If you are a victim: Contact the Federal Trade Commission and report the crime. Get a police report. Notify the three credit bureaus and ask them to flag your accounts. Keep records of all correspondence. Notify all creditors and banks. Ask utility companies to watch out for anyone ordering services in your name.

Identity theft is “easy to commit, hard to prosecute.” The average time to resolve a case of identity theft is 4-7 years. You don’t want to become a victim. Take precautions now.

How to Prevent Home Burglaries

The officer briefly touched upon this subject.

Have strong doors and windows
Have an alarm system
Get a free residential survey from your local police if they offer this service
Protect your garage door
Get a dog
Trim the landscaping around your house
Change the pattern of your house during the day; i.e. leave the TV or radio on at different hours
Have a neighbor park his car in your driveway
Stop delivery of newspaper if you are going away

Lots of these are common sense items. Do what you can to protect yourself and your property, and avoid the anguish of setting things right later on.

Mystery Plot Points

What are the turning points in a mystery? When we plot romances, we have certain emotional plot points, like first kiss and big dark moment. What about the traditional whodunit mystery? For example, is it necessary to have a dead body in chapter one? Does the crime always have to be a murder? How many suspects is too many? How can the sagging middle be avoided?

Each author will have a different answer, and they’re all right. I’ve read mysteries where no one gets killed for the first hundred pages. You can guess who might get the axe and are often right, but everyone you meet until that point becomes a suspect. This works if the sleuth leads such an interesting life that you don’t care about when the body shows up, or the author’s voice is so catchy and engaging that you’ll read along just for pleasure. But for beginning mystery authors, placing the body up front is often the best bet.

After writing ten mysteries in my Bad Hair Day series, I found a pattern that I find comfortable. This isn’t to say I follow it every single time. But my loose structure might help others who are wondering how to plot those turning points. Keep in mind that other writers might reverse the order, jumble it up, or not include these items at all. The crime might be a stolen object of value, a missing person, a kidnap victim. It doesn’t always have to be a murder. But for a mystery in the traditional sense, the story usually involves a murder with an amateur sleuth in a confined setting, which may be a small town that has its own unique flavor. So these are the plot points I might employ:

Dead Body

Introduction of Suspects

Secrets: Every suspect has something to hide

Second dead body

Attempts on sleuth’s life as he/she gets closer to truth

One suspect turns out to be a red herring and has led sleuth down the wrong path

Secrets are exposed and suspects are eliminated

Final clue leading to killer

Through all of this is the personal subplot, often a romance or other relationship, that leads the sleuth to experience a revelation about herself thus providing character growth by the end of the story. This is the hook to make your reader buy your next book. She has to care what happens to your sleuth, and it’s the personal relationships, the sleuth’s quirky outlook on life, and the distinctive setting that will draw readers back for more.