The Who, How and What of Identity Theft
Have you seen those television ads where two genteel Southern matrons are sitting on the couch talking to each other, but the words coming out of their mouths are jarring, spoken by a couple of tough guys? The ad is designed to illustrate identity theft, the fastest growing crime in the country.
Just the two words identity theft can create a state of anxiety in us that there are big bad dudes out there ready to steal our good names and cost us a lot of money – and cause us a lot of grief. In this case, our worries are real. Look down the street where you live. It’s estimated that one in 23 consumers, or about 9.3 million people, have been victimized by identity theft, and -- surprise -- most of their identities were not stolen through the Internet, which we might have assumed.
Speaking to a group of older adults recently, Peter Morgan, a US Postal Inspector working in the Pittsburgh area, defined identity theft as the unauthorized acquisition and use of a true person’s Identity and personal information for unlawful purposes. That personal information could include your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, credit card and bank account numbers and your mother’s maiden name, the ubiquitous password we thought would stand guard over our lives.
Who is stealing our identities?
According to Morgan, it can be anyone, such as:
- Retail merchants/employees
- Restaurant and hotel employees
- Travel agencies
- Illegal immigrants
- And, shockingly, over 50 percent of victims have been victimized by members of their own families.
Thieves can access your personal information in a number of ways including:
- Via dishonest employees
- Telephone solicitations
- Thefts of purses and wallets
- “Dumpster Diving” (Going through trash which has been tossed into dumpsters at apartment buildings, etc.)
- Theft of mail (Although this counts for fewer than four percent of total cases)
Once thieves have your information, they may use it to take over your credit card accounts, apply for loans in your name, defraud utility companies, complete applications for pre-approved credit cards with your information and remove money from your ATM accounts. (Most people use their date of birth or the last four digits for their Social Security number as their pin for use with their ATM cards. This is not recommended, Morgan said.)
Morgan discussed several scams which have resulted in victims doing what they are told either over the phone or through an email message, all resulting in the loss of their money. The best way to protect yourself is to not speak with telephone solicitors and immediately delete any emails from people or organizations you are not familiar with.
But thieves are smart. They are always devising new ways to get their hands on our personal information. Phishing* is the theft of personal information by using legitimate looking emails. We received one of these types of emails from what appeared to be the Best Buy company. The email said that the company was doing account maintenance and needed to verify our account information or else our account would not be viable. All we had to do was click on the listed link and resend our personal information and all would be well.
The email read a little “phisy” so I called Best Buy and they said they had not sent the email nor would they ever do that. If we had clicked on the link the email message had directed us to our information would have gone to an undetectable website and directly to the scammers.
An estimated 75 to 150 MILLION phishing emails are sent every day. Scary, isn’t it?
Another way that your information might be ripped off is known as skimming**. Thieves use a “wedge” device about the size of a small cell phone to swipe the magnetic strip on your card, storing the information on the device until it’s downloaded to a computer. (The magnetic strip is embedded with your name, account number and issuing bank.) This can happen after you give someone your credit card in a restaurant, for example, Morgan said, when the card is out of your hands. He suggests paying cash or holding onto your card and paying your bill at the cash register at the front of a restaurant where the entire transaction is in your view.
If you think you have been a victim of identity theft, Morgan suggests that you:
- Call your local police and file a report. If the crime involved the US Mail, contact your nearest US Postal Inspection Service office.
- Call the fraud units of the three major credit bureaus (www.equifax.com, www.experian.com, www.transunion.com) and request a “fraud alert” be placed on your credit file. Check your monthly statements for accuracy.
- Keep a paper trail of everyone you discuss your case with for your records.
- Alert your banks and credit card companies. They may “flag” your accounts to let you know if there is any unusual activity.
- Dispute and close all accounts opened fraudulently and notify creditors by phone and in writing.
- File your complaint online with the Federal Trade Commission or call their ID Theft Hotline at 1-877-IDTHEFT.
What’s being done to fight identity theft?
Morgan says the government is passing legislation to deal with the crime of ID theft and organizations such as his use “aggressive investigation and law enforcement” methods to stop thieves. Officials also work to raise consumer awareness and with financial industries to create preventative measures.
As for us, what can we do to prevent ourselves becoming victims of identity theft?
- Don’t respond to phishing emails.
- Don’t carry a Social Security card with you or extra credit cards and personal information cards.
- Make a photocopy of all of the cards etc. in your wallet in case it’s lost or stolen. That way you know exactly who to contact to make a report.
- Memorize your personal identification numbers, especially your pin numbers for accessing your ATM accounts.
- Never give out personal information over the phone to anyone unless you have initiated the call and know exactly who you are talking to.
- Ladies, do not keep your purse in your grocery cart as you shop.
- Don’t let your mail sit in your mail box. Remove it immediately. The US Postal Service recommends putting outgoing mail into collection boxes, handing it directly to the mail carrier or taking it directly to the post office to mail.
- Shred everything. This is tedious, but it does help to prevent ID theft. Shredding “will make it less likely that you will become a victim and have your personal identity compromised.” Morgan also strongly suggests shredding all the credit card offers you get in the mail.
- Order and review your consumer credit reports annually to check for fraudulent activity. One source is www.annualcreditreport.com.
By Teresa K. Flatley