Surviving Your Off-Duty Hours

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in law enforce­ment has heard threats. That is one of the reasons we carry firearms while off duty, have unlisted telephone numbers, and maybe have the registra­tion information of our personally owned vehicles restricted.

"I'm gonna get you when I get out!"

Anyone who has spent any amount of time in law enforce­ment has heard threats. That is one of the reasons we carry firearms while off duty, have unlisted telephone numbers, and maybe have the registra­tion information of our personally owned vehicles restricted.

As cops, we deal with numerous people on a professional basis. There is a proba­bility that some of our "clients" will not be happy with our actions. A few might actually make an attempt to do us harm.

Besides inflicting physical harm, the offender may choose from several lower ­risk methods of revenge. These can be very effective in damaging a person's credit, life, family and career.

Where There's a Will There's a Way

Anyone who wants to track somebody down, and who knows how "the system" works, isn't going to let minor hurdles like an unlisted telephone number deter him or her. Let's face it. Officers have been followed from their police stations to their homes.

Each and every one of us has informa­tion about us stored away in various information databases. Some of that informa­tion is privileged information. This in­cludes credit information, criminal histo­ries and motor vehicle registration information. This information is suppos­edly restricted to a "need-to-know" and. for the most part, is fairly secure. Some­times some of this information can be­come "quasi-public information."

There is also public information, avail­able to anyone who knows how to obtain it. This type of information includes prop­erty records; birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates; civil actions; and other documents.

Let's face it. If you own a home, have been married or divorced, have been in­volved in any type of litigation, person­ally or professionally, that information is readily available to the public.

Enter the Internet Age

Information that once had to be dug out of musty court archives is now avail­able to anyone who has Internet access. Looking for your long lost love? How about the cop who unjustly gave you the ticket for doing 92 in a school zone?

There are numerous people-finding services that abound on the Internet. They guarantee results in finding one's "long lost love." These films use numerous in­formation sources to locate individuals. Some of these sources are legitimate, and some are considered "quasi public infor­mation." There are something like 10,000 people-finding sites on the Internet, and all of them are unregulated.

Have you filled out a warranty card for a newly purchased item? Recently subscribed to a magazine? Registered for an upcoming sweepstake? Applied for a check-cashing card? Filed for a change-of-address at the post office? All of this information is sold and will eventually end up in people finders' data banks.

More than one undercover operation has been compromised when a check of the undercover operative revealed a tem­porary address change to Quantico, Va., when the operative attended in-service training with the FBI.

Many police departments are aware of the available information and will only list the officer's last name on documents re­leased to the public, such as press releases.

Stolen Identities

Identity theft, the theft of another's personal information, is another crime that is rapidly gaining in popularity. The identity thief will assume the identity of another, and go on a spending spree, uti­lizing the purloined credit of the unsus­pecting "donor." In many cases, victims will not know that their credit is compro­mised until months, or years later. Iden­tity theft accumulates about 500,000 new victims per year, and that number in­creases rapidly every year. Currently, identity theft is a Clime in only a handful of states. Only about 10 percent of the suspects are caught, and most only get probation as punishment. Identity theft is a low-risk, high-profit venture.

 Many take the position that the finan¬≠cial institutions are the victims. Explain that to someone who has maintained good credit only to be labeled a "dead¬≠beat." Try to imagine the nightmare of repairing your integrity, let alone credit, after someone has used your identifying information to refinance your house, "purchased" cars, boats, trips to Maui and so on. Then deal with collection agencies, financial institutions and pos¬≠sibly, legal action, to defend yourself for the goods and services "you" purchased and refused to pay for. 

To an extent, the financial institutions are victims, however, these organiza­tions exist to make a profit, and the loss­es are passed on to the consumer - you and me - in the form of higher fees.

What better way in seeking revenge against the cop who arrested you for drunken driving - when you were only two blocks from home?

Keep Your Profession To Yourself

Another wrinkle in identity theft is called the "cloned car." This is where ve­hicle-identifying information is stolen and the information is transferred to a stolen car. Cop's cars are specifically tar­geted, as some states will allow certain persons to "confidentialize" their vehicle registration, so that when the plate is "run" it will indicate that the car is owned by a member of the law enforce­ment community.

Certain steps can be taken to mini­mize the chances of becoming a victim. In this business it does not pay to adver­tise that we are members of law enforce­ment while we are off duty.

Deputy Shane York of the Los Ange¬≠les County Sheriff's Department paid the ultimate price while off duty at a hair salon with his fiancee.  Armed robbers conducted a takeover robbery and placed everyone on the floor. Upon taking the deputy's wallet, they discovered his badge, and the unarmed deputy was ex¬≠ecuted - just because he was a cop!

It is strongly suggested that the badge and police ID not be carried in one's wallet. A separate wallet or badge case, which contains your police ID and other professional certificates (though as little personal information as possible), should be carried. The main wallet, which I call the "check-cashing wallet," should contain nothing that would iden­tify you as a police officer.

Your Social Security card should be stored in a safe place. It does not belong in your wallet. The identity thief requires a Social Security number, and stolen wal­lets and purses are one way of obtaining personal information. If your wallet is stolen, why make it easy for the crook?

There are other identifiers that street people are aware of that can indicate one's profession, such as a handcuff key dangling from your key chain, basket weave wallets and belts, and not-so-subtle items, such as police license plate frames, police association stickers, baseball caps, jackets and T-shil1s with police logos.

Several years ago a co-worker went to pick up his wife from work on his day off. He arrived a few minutes early, so he went to the coffee shop next door to kill a few minutes. While sipping his coffee, a lone male entered the coffee shop, brandished a shotgun and announced that he was holding the place up. The robbery almost escalated into a homicide as the robber spotted the T-shirt my friend was wearing, which identified the name of the police department he worked for in large, bold letters. Perhaps the robber was wise enough to calculate the differences in terms of punishment between robbery and homicide, because after scooping-up the cash, he ended, up pointing the shotgun at my friend's midsection and muttered; "I hate pigs!"

You can bet my friend no longer wears any off-duty clothing with the word "POLICE" on it.

The person behind you I n line at the store may not immediately know what you do for a living, however, if your personal checks or credit card display your department's badge or logo, your professional  will quickly become a matter of public information.  If a robbery occurs, what are your chances of safety if the person behind you, the clerk, your companion, or a friend cries out, "You're a police officer-do something.

Speaking of clerks, how many times have you heard about a dishonest clerk misusing credit card information?  Advertising your profession may give someone ideas to "charge" a couple of extra purchases to your account, a little "payback" from the clerk whose friend was wrongly ticketed for making a U-turn on the freeway the previous month.

Officers making purchases while in uniform should pay cash.  Why give out your bank and credit card information?

Other Ways to Protect Yourself

Other methods of protection would be to place ownership of property into your spouse's name or place the title into a trust.  Owners of income property might consider forming a corporation.  One should obtain competent legal and tax advice prior to making any drastic changes in property ownership.

Considering having your professional publications and (if permissible) vehicle registration sent to a post office box.

Credit card and ATM receipts should be shredded, not simply discarded into a convenient trash bin.  "Trash surfing" is one of the ways an identity thief obtains his or her information.

You should run your credit twice a year and review the credit report carefully.  Any questionable entries should be disputed immediately.  Many times victims of identity theft won't know that they are victims until they attempt to purchase homes, cars, or other major purchases only to find out that their credit has been severely compromised.

If you drive a vehicle that is popular with thieves, the plate should be run periodically (department policies permitting) to see if your car has been "cloned".  Any new license plates issued to your vehicle, which you did not order, would be an indicator that your vehicle information has been compromised.

Police officers should be concerned with officer survival both on and off duty.  Adhering to these rules should lessen the chances of being victimized.

John Bellah is a corporal with the California State University, Long Beach P.D.  In his 23-year law enforcement career, he has investigated numerous fraud and identity theft cases.


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