Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said identity theft is the No. 1 problem in Arizona.
He said even in a small town like Payson, identity theft is a growing problem that is not going away, and his office wants to try and help citizens be more aware of how to deal with it.
One of the ways a person's identity and sensitive information can be accessed is over the Internet, Goddard said.
"Wireless Internet presents some very real dangers for identity theft," he said. "Never use a debit card online, once they (thieves) get ahold of all that information, they can pretty much drain a bank account of a person's savings."
Phoenix resident Bill Chambers, independent associate for Identity Theft Shield, came from the Valley to attend Thursday night's forum.
Chambers said there are 27,000 new cases of identity theft reported daily nationwide.
"The Federal Trade Commission said it's going to increase 20-fold in the next two years," Chambers said. "Since 2003, there's been almost 106 million Social Security numbers stolen."
Chambers wanted to know how the average citizen can protect themselves against something so pervasive.
"One of the best ways is to get an annual credit report," Goddard said. "You are entitled to one free credit report per year."
He said by monitoring personal credit reports, consumers can see unauthorized activity like auto loans, credit applications and other credit related information.
The attorney general's website at: www.azag.gov, provides links to get a free credit report.
The forum was sponsored by the attorney general's office and held in the Payson High School auditorium Thursday night.
A panel including Payson Mayor Bob Edwards, County Attorney Daisy Flores, Gila County Sheriff John Armer and Payson Police Chief Don Engler answered questions from about 100 members of the community in attendance.
The attorney general said it is also important to collect mail in a timely manner.
"There's so much information included in your mail that has personal information on it," he said.
"Credit card applications for example, or what if you already have a credit card and they send you checks with your name, your account number and everything an identity thief needs to cash in on your account."
Goddard said those are just some of the kind of things typically targeted by identity thieves.
"I hate to say it, but Arizona [is] number one for mail theft in the country," he said.
Mail theft accounts for only one part of the problem, Goddard said, thieves will also search through people's trash in the hopes of getting information they can use.
"Many people save financial records for years, like tax records," he said. "Putting them in the trash, or the Dumpster is not a safe alternative, it allows what the attorney general calls ‘Dumpster divers,' this is a new economic niche of people, to take information out of your trash and then they figure out how to steal your identity with it."
Flores said it is well worth the investment to get a paper shredder and destroy sensitive documents and letters before they go into the trash.
Goddard said his office will be offering "shred-a-thons" across the state so people can come in and shred sensitive personal documents and records.
Goddard's Press Secretary, Andrea Esquer said, "[Shred-a-thons] are nothing new, we've been having them for a couple of years, there's a link on our Web site that gives all the information on them."
The next closest shred-a-thon is scheduled for Oct. 1, at the Pima Council on Aging office in Tucson from 9 a.m. to noon.
Goddard said the fact that identity theft is a growing problem across the state is why his office is offering the forums, to give Arizona residents some tools to protect themselves.
Keeping a tight hold on a Social Security number and being aware of where and who knows it, is one of the best ways to protect one's identity, Flores said.
"Keep all of your pins (personal identification number) and credit card numbers as secure as possible," she said.
"Don't use your Social Security number on your driver's license," Flores added.
"You can opt to have a random number assigned by Motor Vehicles, and it is a very good way to further secure your Social Security number."
Another member of the community asked if it is a crime for family members to use another family member's credit cards, name or other information without permission.
"As far as I know, the penalties for identity theft, or theft in general, are the same for a family member as anyone else," Flores said.
She said identity theft is sometimes committed by family members, and that while it is unfortunate, it is important to report it in order to protect an individual's financial record and credit rating.
The other main concern among residents at the forum was consumer fraud.
Payson resident Gene Sampson voiced concerns over fliers offering investment opportunities to the elderly that he and other seniors have seen distributed among area retirees.
"I think that in many cases they should be viewed with a high degree of skepticism," Goddard said.
"We can't say that they're all phony, they're not all fraudulent, but there are certainly a few out there that are."
He said there are fairly common themes used by con artists to get people to trust them and give them money.
One of the things Goddard warned against was being overly impressed by being taken to a fancy lunch or dinner, or what he called the "trappings" of the con.
"I always find that the more glittering the trappings, the more likely it is that they are trying to cover something up," he said.
Goddard cautioned against fraud connected with refinancing a home or virtually any significant financial transaction.
He said consumers should always ask questions, ask for licenses, and to put their "suspicious cap" on when considering any investment or financial transaction.
Being suspicious when it comes to investment opportunities that seem too good to be true, or in giving out sensitive personal information is primarily the responsibility of the consumer, Goddard said.
He said it is important for neighbors and community members to watch out for each other and report anything suspicious they might see, like someone rummaging through a Dumpster or a neighbor's trash.
"It's what I call ‘eyes on the street,' neighbors watching out for their neighbors," he said.
"So many times in Arizona, with growing communities, neighbors don't know their neighbors, and crime has a field day."