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The Cindy Shearin Group: How to money, prevent being victim of fraud

GARY | Being a wise consumer involves staying alert, doing your homework and knowing when to walk away from a transaction. It also means knowing how technology can help and hurt consumers and businesses.

That’s some of the advice those attending Monday’s Gary Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Majestic Star Events Center heard from Jason Knowles, WLS-TV’s I-Team consumer investigative reporter.

Knowles, a native of Cleveland, joined the I-Team in January after serving as a general assignment reporter for ABC-Chicago morning news and as producer for news programs.

Consumer investigators “complement what (investigative reporter) Chuck Goudie does (with public corruption). I take calls from consumers. While it may not be an earth-shattering investigation, they have ‘take away’,” he said.

Consumer investigative reporting helps save people and businesses money and prevent them from becoming victims of ever-increasing scams, Knowles said.

Most tips for stories come from viewers who leave messages on a special phone line set up for consumer investigations.

Not every call is returned, Knowles said, but the stories that are chosen for investigation need documentation.

One of the high profile investigations Knowles and the team investigated involved smartphone theft.

Smartphone thefts skyrocketed and became deadly in Chicago, he said. The I-Team’s investigation revealed that 90 percent of stolen smart phones were going through small middle-man phone stores in the area and then to Hong Kong where they sold for $2,000 each.

The segment about this problem helped consumers learn how certain apps could make them targets for such theft and how locking their smart phones could help.

“Kill switches for smart phone will make these phones useless, and if they are useless, criminals won’t want them,” Knowles said.

Identity theft is another huge consumer problem, he said.

For example, social media has made identity theft easier because people post so much personal information online, he said. “People offer up their lives on a silver platter.”

Old-fashioned data breaches occur because people aren’t vigilant about protecting their Social Security numbers and birth dates, he said.

“You need to guard your Social Security number and birth date like gold,” Knowles said. “Even with the last four digits of the Social and your date of birth, people can steal your identity and open up any kind of account.”

Shred documents and bills, and use technology, including emails, to receive alerts from banks and credit card companies about activity on your accounts, he advised.

Other hot topics in consumer investigations include complaints about lenders and mortgages, and problems with home construction and remodeling, Knowles said.