You should be careful about your personal information and data on the Internet by only using secure sites and making sure your credit card information isn't available to hackers. But did you know that identity thieves have an old fashioned way of getting information they want right out of your home?
People such as home health care workers giving care to the elderly, repairmen fixing leaking pipes or broken windows, housekeepers, relatives and friends all have access into your home. While we would like to believe that nobody that we know will steal from us, unfortunately it does happen. Follow these simple tips to keep your personal information safe in your home.
Tip #1: Look at Mail Immediately
Even if you know that your mail is a credit card statement, you should still open the letter and not leave it lying around where someone can grab it up while leaving. Place important mail that you need to address immediately into a drawer. Don't leave it in open view.
Tip #2: Shred Mail You Don't Need
Always destroy mail and other documents that hold information such as social security numbers, credit card numbers and bank account numbers. This prevents thieves from getting the information from out of the trash.
Tip #3: Lock It Away
All your important documents -- birth certificates, passports, and statements -- should be placed in a locked drawer or safe that only you know the combination to or have the key to open. You won't have to worry about anyone getting at your information.
In the summer of 2000 while on a multi-city business trip my husband, Richard, checked into a hotel in Jacksonville, Florida. The next day I answered a phone call at our home in Minnesota from the credit card company who issued the card he used the day before. Asking to speak with Richard, I took the phone number, contacted him, and he returned the call. The credit card company representative informed him that someone was attempting to charge a number of large ticket items to his card as quickly as possible in the Miami area. Because the quick succession of charges was atypical for the card, the activity raised a red flag for the creditor and prompted the phone call.
I guess you could say we were lucky. Most people don't discover they are victims of identity theft until there has been weeks or months of fraudulent activity. Yet even with such quick action it took nearly two months to finish the process of filing reports, contacting agencies, and following up with correspondence to ensure that no other attempts were made to use Richard's identity for additional crimes.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect for victims of identity theft is the unknown. How much of your information does the thief have? How was it stolen? What other ways might he or she try to use it? What can you do to prevent it from happening again?
We wanted these answers and so should you, whether you've been the victim of identity theft or not. Because of our own experiences, when the opportunity was presented to write this book, I jumped at the chance. Inside you'll find tips and contact resources that can answer questions and replace the unknowns with useful information. My hope is that one small snippet or idea from these pages may be all you need to avoid joining the growing ranks of ID theft victims.
In May of 2006, the President signed an Executive Order establishing an Identity Theft Task Force, directing it to develop a coordinated strategic plan to combat id theft. Among other recommendations, the plan was directed to include suggestions for "ensuring just and effective punishment for those who perpetrate identity theft." Task Force recommendations specific to prosecution and punishment for identity theft -- which can also be found in detail on the FTC's website -- include:
· Requiring each United States Attorney's Office to appoint an identity theft coordinator and develop an Identity Theft Program for each District, and creating working groups and task forces to focus on the investigation and prosecution of identity theft.
· Amending federal statutes and guidelines used to prosecute identity-theft related offenses. Specific proposed amendments include:
Contrary to popular belief, not all victims of criminal identity theft are interested in prosecuting the criminal.
Most cases of ID theft involve at least two victims: the individual whose personal information is used to commit the crimes and the company or retailer that granted the credit, accepted the credit card or check from the offender. The individual is typically off the hook for financial liability while the creditor is left holding the loss. Yet, ironically, it is the creditor – the one with the loss – who refuses to pursue prosecution. Why? Time and money.
For many credit card companies and corporations who fall victim to identity theft crimes, it's easier and less costly to write off the loss as a cost of doing business. It's a bottom line decision. But it's not just big companies that write off losses. Small companies don't have the staff to appoint a dedicated advocate to manage the case and won't spend the money to hire a lawyer because the resulting costs could well exceed the amount of recovery.
So does this lack of pursuit of justice or punishment perpetuate identity theft crimes? That particular debate is ongoing with plenty of finger pointing from all sides. However, many of the individuals who are left to clear their records experience a lack of cooperation from credit card companies and credit reporting agencies.
Without the same outrage and feeling of violation that is felt by individual victims, agencies have little motivation to prioritize identity fraud cases and are content to leave the decision to file charges and pursue punishment up to prosecutors.
Prosecutorial victories to convict and dole out punishment for cybercrimes and online ID theft are few and far between. Part of the reason is because the lion's share of spam threats doesn't come from the U.S., it comes from gangs based in Asia and Russia. And, although cybercrime laws are being updated in several countries, including Russia, law enforcement efforts are not as aggressive as those in the U.S.
Another reason for so few cybercrime convictions is that criminals are somewhat of a moving target. They may not be physically moving from place to place, but they are able to reroute the cyber schemes through multiple networks that are difficult to trace. And to add fuel to the fire, they continually devise new and more sophisticated techniques to get past anti-spam software and firewalls. One of the latest types of spam slipping through corporate systems is image-based spam.
If there's good news, it's that law enforcement agencies are more determined to gear up rather than give up the fight. The latest technologies being implemented to fight spam and phishing expeditions are reputation services designed to identify and rate suspicious e-mail. The goal is to cut off the destructive malware at the gateway so it can't enter the network.
There's an element of patience required to successfully track and capture online identity thieves. Yet, once arrested, multiple indictments can lead to a theft conviction, resulting in decades of prison time.
Identity theft and fraud is a federal crime and violations are investigated by federal law enforcement agencies. Federal identity theft statutes are used to determine punishment for ID theft crimes. However, individual state laws differ in classification and associated punishment for identity theft cases.
For example, in Georgia, the punishment for financial identity theft is “imprisonment for not less than one nor more than 10 years or a fine not to exceed $100,00, or both for first offense. Punishable by imprisonment for not less than three nor more than 15 years, a fine not to exceed $250,000, or both for subsequent offenses.”
In Arkansas, financial identity fraud is considered a Class C felony, which means that it is punishable by imprisonment for 10 or more years, but less than 25 years. These two states have drastically different sentencing guidelines.
To find out what classification applies to convictions for identity theft crimes in your state, contact your state Attorney General or local consumer protection agency.
|Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D.|