Identity theft concerns spike for Dept. of Consumer Affairs

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Identity theft concerns have skyrocketed in South Carolina, and the Department of Consumer Affairs says they have the phone bill to back it up.

The department says the calls first started to spike in November after the breach at the Department of Revenue was announced. "In November we got our first telephone bill where it showed 7,500 calls had come in during the month, even though we were only here for 19 business days," said Carri Grube Lybarker, the administrator for the Department of Consumer Affairs.

Lybarker says the department was averaging around 2,000 calls a month before the spike, and that was already up from the previous year. She said they saw the number of calls dip in December, but come January there was an even greater spike.

"On Christmas Eve, letters starting going out to consumers [from the Department of Revenue] who were actually  identified as having their information affected during the breach, so we had over 11,000 phone calls in January alone," added Lybarker.

The phone bill for the department was nearly ten times higher this January than in the past two years.

Staffers say this January alone they spent more than 30,000 minutes on their 1-800 number, and they say the majority of those calls were identity theft concerns.

Lybarker says before the letters went out, consumers were mainly asking what they needed to do to protect themselves. She says after the letters made it to consumers, most of the calls were asking staffers to explain what the letter meant. "In the first 3 months of this calendar year, we received 1,000 more calls than we received in 2011 as a whole, and we were on the phone for 16,000 more minutes than we were in the whole of 2011," said Lybarker.

Lybarker says the administration is staffed with 33 full-time employees, and during the unprecedented spike she says their staffers were pulling double duty. She says while it was chaos at first, they were glad to field the mass amount of calls because they knew consumer awareness was increasing.

"The silver lining is that people know we're here and we're here and capable of helping," said Lybarker. "We also have a more aware public now. We have consumers who are checking their credit reports more often and looking for information that made be red flag indications of identity theft."

Moving forward, Lybarker believes the spike in concerns highlights the need for staff who would deal solely with identity theft. The department has requested to develop a division called the Identity Theft Unit.

The request is part of the larger Cyber Security and Identity Theft Protections bill. "We would assist consumers with protecting themselves against identity theft," said Lybarker. "Whether that's through education or if they believe their a victim, we would either give them the resources where if they were able to do it on their own  they could do so, but also provide that one-on-one direct assistance so we could help them clear up their identity theft situation in a fast manner."

Lybarker says the unit would also assist law enforcement with the latest identity theft trends and help work to reduce the instances of identity theft and fraud. She says budget cuts in 2011 cut their staff in half, and they don't currently have enough resources to dedicate what they feel is needed to identity theft.

She adds while they are starting to see a decline in calls, she doesn't believe their call volume will ever return to what it was before the Department of Revenue of hacking.

The Cyber Security and Identity Theft Protections bill has passed in the Senate. Today the House Ways and Means Committee will take up the bill.