Skip to main content

Schemes, Scams, and Stolen Identity

How to Avoid Getting Taken to the Cleaners

A couple of years ago I opened up my credit card statement and found $20,000 worth of gasoline charges from several stores in the Miami area. I thought, “Wow, I haven’t been in Miami, and I haven’t gotten any gas there. Why do I have these charges?” I panicked and immediately called the credit card company.

I had been a victim of identity fraud. As director of the Utah Department of Commerce, I help consumers in similar situations, but I didn’t expect it to happen to me. I had not lost my card, but someone had stolen my number. I had done business with a company in Park City, Utah, which had maintained my information in their database that was broken into—this happened to several businesses. The thief didn’t need my name, just my credit card number.

I obviously didn’t have to pay the charges; my card was destroyed, and I was given a new number. Things like that happen, but take a close look at your credit card statements and know the charges that you’ve made. Make sure you don’t leave your purse or wallet in the car. All a thief needs is a social security or credit card number to establish a new identity.

The Division of Consumer Protection helps people guard their identity, money, and information. I’d like to highlight a few ways you can avoid getting scammed.


Many people contribute to charities, but how do they decide who they are going to give to? Some go by a gut feeling—if they feel that the organization is doing positive things. Some have been personally involved with the organization and know how the contributions are used. But there are other ways to make your decision.

In Utah, and in most other states, anyone who either solicits you by telephone, mail, or knocking on your door has to be registered in the state, specifically with the Division of Consumer Protection. That’s where we house all of the charity filings.

That information is available on our web site, One of the bits of information we have there, which is important for consumers, is what percentage of the donated dollar is going to the charitable purpose. You’ll be surprised to find out that we have many registered on our web site that give 10 percent to the charitable purpose and 90 percent to a fundraiser.

We also have some that have zero percent going to the charitable purpose. We list them because the Supreme Court told us that we can not inhibit free speech. As long as a charity says that zero percent is going to the charitable purpose, they can solicit.

The Department of Commerce recommends giving to organizations that have between 60 and 70 percent going to the charitable purpose. That’s something that only you can decide whether you feel comfortable with. For example, the firefighters have a very small percentage that specifically goes to the burn unit at the University of Utah. Most of their monies are used for lobbying and paying for professional fundraisers.

Several years ago we arrested a young man because he was a Sub for Santa—for himself. He was going door-to-door, and that’s illegal. The Sub for Santa program is certainly an important component of the holidays, and it really helps families who don’t have money for Christmas. Because this individual was scamming people, we were able to arrest him. Violating the Charitable Solicitation Act is a class B criminal misdemeanor, and those can add up. And, depending upon the dollar loss, those violations can be considered a felony. Holidays and disasters—any kind of natural event or a kidnapping—are the two times we see the most charity fraud. The very day Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped we started getting phone calls from people who were receiving calls from the Missing and Exploited Children Foundation. That foundation did not make those phone calls—they never solicit on the back of an event with a missing child. Fortunately, we were able to get that word out rather quickly. It was literally just hours after Hurricane Katrina that we started taking phone calls about suspicious solicitations. That’s just how fast it happens. Be very, very careful. We certainly want to give to charities, but we want you to give to those that are legitimate.


Put all your telephone numbers—including cell phone numbers—on the national Do Not Call registry list ( The registry went into effect several years ago. To date, there are about 70 million phone numbers in the database, which is pretty incredible. It usually takes about two months to kick in because telemarketers have to update their lists and they get that from the database. If you’re still getting those phone calls, contact your state’s Department of Commerce to report violations.

Putting your phone number on the registry doesn’t mean you’ll stop getting phone calls from your bank, because they have a preexisting business relationship with you. There are also some exceptions to the Do Not Call registry, such as airlines, charities, securities, brokers, and financial planners. In most states, realtors are exempt as well.

However, you can ask to be put on a specific company’s do not call list, because they should maintain one, and they should comply with your request. If they don’t, the statute allows for consumers to get a judgment against them to the tune of $500. We’ve arranged in Utah Small Claims Court for you to take care of that on your own. It simply requires you to keep track—notify the company, and if they call you again then you’ve got a case.


I was at a group about six months ago, and I asked if anyone had ever won a sweepstakes. One woman raised her hand—she had received a check for $0.63. Are sweepstakes legitimate? We think your chances of winning a sweepstakes are slim to nil.

Sometimes you get postcards in the mail saying you’ve won five prizes, and all you’ve got to do is make a phone call, but that phone call could cost you a lot of money. That toll-free call could turn into a toll call, and you would be surprised what’s on your phone bill. Be very careful when you do that. Also when you call, you will get on a mailing list, which will cause many trees to be killed because of the number of solicitations you’ll start to receive.

I see a lot of seniors get hurt this way. If you know seniors or have them in your neighborhood, share this information with them. The $50,000 in cash is never going to be given away. If you get a phone call stating you’ve won a sweepstakes, call your state’s Department of Commerce to see if the company is registered as a telemarketer.

Additionally, it is illegal to gamble in most states. If you get a call from a lottery, for example, it’s a scam. I could fill several rooms with victims to show how often people get injured this way.


There are three credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. They each keep bits of your information, some of which overlap. In December 2004, Congress passed a law that allows consumers to look at their credit report from each bureau once every twelve months for free. With this new service available, found at, I would encourage you to go online and check a different report every four months—it only takes a few minutes and can save you a headache down the road.

The credit reporting bureaus don’t give you your credit score for free—just the credit report—but if you buy your score, it doesn’t hurt it. It can harm your credit if you purchase your reports too much—but that’s if you look at it every day or month. Your credit score can also go down if you apply for lots of loans. I recently purchased a car, and the dealer pulled my credit report up. I asked for a copy since I was paying for it, but they weren’t sure if they could give it to me. I told them I didn’t want them to pull it if I couldn’t have it, and they ended up giving it to me. There are opportunities that you can take as you make purchases that require credit scores. It’s your report, and you should have access to it.

Having your credit report interrupted by a scam could be very harmful to your future financial health. And if there’s a problem, it’s your responsibility to get it corrected.

My husband is a small business owner, and his taxes were handled by an accounting firm in Logan, Utah. Just before 15 April a couple of years ago, the CPA firm was broken into—all the thieves took were hard drives. The company sent us a letter notifying us what happened and what we should do to get on top of it. We put fraud alerts on our reports, but another big problem is that we had our children’s Social Security numbers on the stolen documents. An identity thief doesn’t care whether you’re fifty, twenty, or eight years old. All they need is a number. We had to put fraud alerts on these three little kids’ numbers. Throw their information in a credit report once in a while—it won’t hurt them one bit.


When we investigate identity crimes, we often find that the thieves had a connection to their victim—whether a family member or roommate. If you move to another location, move your mail with you. Know when your credit card statement is mailed, because identity thieves often steal mail from your mailbox. I grew up in a place where our mailboxes were locked, and I would suggest you use locked mailboxes as well.

Another way to stay protected is to own a cross-cut shredder. Recently, a local news station ran a story about a woman who ordered a porcelain statue, which came wrapped in paper shredded in a straight line. The paper used was old payroll statements from a local company and could easily be placed back together. Shred anything with personal information on it, but be careful how it’s shredded.

There are some very simple things that we can do to protect ourselves. Keep your Social Security number at home; don’t take it with you. Make sure that your driver’s license doesn’t have your social security number on it either. That was a requirement, but now it’s not.

The Utah Division of Consumer Protection also has a lemon law. If you feel like you’ve purchased a new vehicle and it’s a lemon, we would encourage you to contact us. I’m sure many of you know people who have bought a vehicle, and the next day it doesn’t work. If you purchase your vehicle as is, then you have a vehicle that doesn’t work. If you bought an extended warranty on your used vehicle, which we encourage you to do, take advantage of that. If you have problems using your warranty, we can get involved and make sure that business owners follow through on their warranties.

Auto repair is also a big problem. Make sure that where you take your car is a place where you know the people or that was recommended to you. Our web site has a buyer-beware list; on that list are companies that have scammed residents and have not reimbursed them.

Always do your homework, and ask questions before you purchase a product or donate to a charity. Know what rights you have as a consumer and the resources available for you to make wise choices and check your records. By following these steps, you can help protect yourself against frauds, scams, and thieves.


Speech given by Francine Giani
Illustrated by Jon Flaming

Francine Giani is director of the Utah Department of Commerce. She earned her MPA from BYU and her BA in communications from Hunter College in New York City.
This article is adapted from her address to MPA students, faculty, and staff on 5 October 2006.

Related Stories


How Will You Carry His Name?

March 26, 2024 08:30 AM
Drawing upon her experiences in the professional and academic worlds, associate professor Abigail Allen shares how followers of Christ can represent His Church.
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection=false overrideCardHideByline=false overrideCardHideDescription=false overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=

Escaping the Hustle Culture

November 28, 2023 01:33 PM
Practical Tips for Finding a Healthier Work-Life Balance
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection=false overrideCardHideByline=false overrideCardHideDescription=false overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=

Time for a Prep Talk

November 28, 2023 01:31 PM
Huddle up: the third and final piece in Marriott Alumni Magazine's preparedness series looks at community preparedness.
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection=false overrideCardHideByline=false overrideCardHideDescription=false overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText= overrideTextAlignment=
overrideBackgroundColorOrImage= overrideTextColor= overrideTextAlignment= overrideCardHideSection=false overrideCardHideByline=false overrideCardHideDescription=false overridebuttonBgColor= overrideButtonText=