Identity Theft, Part 1: What Is it? How Do Crooks Do It?

Simply put, identity theft is the fraudulent acquisition and use of a person’s private identifying information such as a Social Security Number, usually for financial gain. It has been a federal crime since 1998 and affects millions of people of all ages (yes, even children) every year. Credit card fraud is the most common type of identity theft, but crooks also commit phone or utility fraud, bank fraud, tax fraud, and medical or insurance fraud. Sometimes the purpose of the theft is not to get your money or your credit but rather to commit crimes in your name. For example, the September 11 hijackers used fake IDs to board the planes.

Criminals who commit identity theft employ a wide variety of tactics to get your information for their crimes.

  • Your mailbox is a wonderful source of information for an identity thief. He or she just needs to walk by and peek at the incoming mail in your box to find out your name and address. Then it’s a simple matter to file a change of address form in your name to divert your mail and begin harvesting your personal and financial data. If you mail payments for bills and put this outgoing mail in your mailbox the identity thief can also steal your outgoing payments and lift your driver’s license, Social Security, phone and other ID numbers from your checks. At that point he or she also has other information such as your checking account number and signature. If your outgoing mail box or tray at work is unlocked or unguarded an identity thief can steal bill payments and other mail from this source too.
  • The idea of going through someone else’s garbage might be repulsive to you, but your Herbie Curbie looks like a potential gold mine to an identity thief. He or she can search through your trash for cancelled checks, credit card or bank statements, or pre-approved credit card offers. Cancelled checks and account statements give the thief your information, and discarded pre-approved offers can be filled out in your name with the thief’s address.
  • A wallet or purse is likely to contain not only your driver’s license but also some credit cards and perhaps even your checkbook. If you ever leave your wallet or purse in your unlocked car or unattended on a table in a restaurant it’s an easy target for an identity thief.
  • If you keep important documents like birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports, or copies of tax returns in a place in your home that isn’t very secure, those documents are easy for a burglar to steal. The burglar might misuse the documents him- or herself or might sell them to someone else. If you have children, their information is particularly tempting to an identity thief because it can potentially be used for several years before the theft is discovered.
  • Sometimes it’s possible for an identity thief to get your personal information from a Who’s Who publication or newspaper article.
  • If you ever receive a call or a knock at the door from someone claiming to be a government official or a businessperson requesting your information, that person could be an identity thief.
  • “Shoulder surfing” is a term used to describe the practice of watching and listening from a nearby location while an unsuspecting victim provides a credit card number or an address over the phone in a public place.
  • Today’s technology provides many additional methods for a thief to steal someone’s identity. Most cell phones come equipped with cameras, and these cameras can be used to snap pictures of credit card numbers or ATM PINs of fellow shoppers. An identity thief with computer skills can do any number of things, from hacking into your computer to sending you “phishing” emails to hijacking entire web sites.
  • As painful as it is to consider, relatives and friends can turn out to be identity thieves.

Next week in Part 2 of this series we’ll discuss prevention tactics!

Sources (these links will open in a new window):
The US Justice Department
National Crime Prevention Council

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