Introduction to Identity Theft Tips

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How does online identity theft occur?

How Identity Theft Occurs in the Virtual World

There's no denying that technology has changed how we work and play. The world is quite literally at our fingertips with computers, cell phones, and PDAs leading the way in gadgetry that we rely on each and every day. These devices allow us to bank online, pay bills and file taxes electronically, buy and sell products and services, and communicate with anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world.

All this convenience and interconnectivity also brings with it security challenges, and ID thieves are more than happy to take advantage of the opportunities we leave open to them. Viruses, spyware and keylogging software helps thieves destroy or capture information stored on our computers. Some of these programs are sent as attachments to e-mails, others may be bundled in tandem with a free offer downloaded from a seemingly legitimate site. If your computer isn't equipped with anti-virus, anti-spyware and firewall protection, you're an easy target. Think of it as leaving your doors and windows wide open in a high-crime neighborhood. You may not be inviting criminals to steal from you, but you're not doing much to deter them.

Online phishing crimes are committed in a similar way as offline pretexting crimes… we volunteer our personal information. Phishing e-mails land in our in box with active links embedded that supposedly will take you to your personal account update page. These links redirect you to a fake site where you enter your login and password, and other personal account information. You've just given away everything a criminal needs to steal your identity.

The more you understand how online thieves attempt to steal your identity, the more you'll be able to do to prevent and protect against it.

How does identity theft occur?

How Identity Theft Occurs in the “Real World”

In the “old” days, a thief would knock you down, grab your purse or wallet, and run for the hills. And it was not uncommon to later find the discarded purse or wallet with the victim's driver's license and personal documents intact because all thieves wanted was your cold hard cash.

But just as quickly as technology devised a way for you to limit how much cash you carry, thieves figured out a way to take it from you.

Thieves are still knocking people down and taking their wallets and purses. But now they are after far more than a few hundred dollars tucked away in your billfold. They want your credit cards, health insurance card, ATM card, driver's license, auto insurance card, and – the “grand prize” – your Social Security number.

Yet even if you are careful about what you carry with you, thieves come up with creative ways to pilfer your personal information. They'll steal your incoming and outgoing mail searching for documents that contain bank account information, new credit cards, and tax documents that display your Social Security number. They'll rummage through your trash looking for discarded documents containing sensitive information. They'll even break into your car and grab everything you keep in the glove compartment, hoping to find credit card receipts, old bills, and any number of personal documents.

Identity theft information is becoming easier to access and the more you learn about identity theft, the better prepared you can be to deter it from happening to you. A good place to start is the Federal Trade Commission and the Identity Theft Center.

Can identity theft be prevented?

Why It's Impossible to Prevent Identity Theft

There are many preventive steps you can take to guard against identity theft. However, it is impossible to give a 100 percent guarantee that you will never become a victim. Just as we can lock our homes at night, put in a security system – or even hire an armed guard – we can decrease the chances of theft, but not guarantee it.

Part of our vulnerability to identity theft comes from the fact that our personal information is in countless computer databases and file cabinets that we don't control. We give out personal information to get credit cards, bank loans, car loans, insurance policies, driver's licenses and passports, and the information is in employer's files and IRS tax filings. We have to place our trust in strangers to protect our information. That opens the door for possible theft by dishonest employees or via computer hackers who steal entire databases.

The key to prevention is to limit access to your information and, when obligated to give it, ask questions about security measures used to protect against theft. Always ask why someone needs your personal information, and how it will be stored and secured. Above all else, protect your Social Security number. The most damage from identity theft occurs when a criminal uses it to create an entirely new credit and/or criminal history in your name. Whenever possible use an alternate form of identification or verification for accounts and records.

How do identity thieves use my information?

How Identity Thieves Use Your Personal Information

As creative as identity thieves are in order to capture your information, they are just as creative in using the information to their own benefit. Here are just some of the ways your information is used by identity thieves:

  • Credit cards are used to purchase high-ticket items that can be easily sold.
  • The mailing address is changed on your existing credit card accounts in an attempt to delay the length of time it takes you to discover the theft.
  • New loans are applied for to buy cars or homes in your name.
  • New credit card and bank accounts are opened using your name, date of birth and Social Security number.
  • Bankruptcy is filed under your name.
  • Your name is given to the police during an arrest resulting in a criminal violation on your record and the potential for a warrant being issued for your arrest.
Savvy thieves can do a lot of damage in a short amount of time so your best defense is quick action and regular monitoring of your accounts and credit reports. Check your credit card and bank statement as soon as you get them for any suspicious activity. Know when your billing cycles are and if a statement does not arrive on time, contact the institution to report it. Monitor your credit report regularly. If new accounts and loans are being opened in your name, you may not learn of it for years – long after the damage is done.

What is pretexting?

Identity Thieves Use Pretexting to Capture Your Information

The easiest way for a thief to steal your identity is to simply call you on the phone and ask you for it. Think you're not vulnerable to such a blatant ploy? Think again. How many times do you agree to participate in a survey? How much information do you willingly give over the phone to your insurance company, your doctor's office or your bank? All it takes is a believable story about needing to update your records or verify your account information and – voila – a friendly, helpful sounding thief thanks you for your assistance and reminds you to “have a nice day” before hanging up the phone. And so begins his/her scheme to use that information to steal your assets or sell it to someone else who will.

This practice is called pretexting and while the most visible cases are purported to happen to the unsuspecting elderly, the truth is that thieves are nondiscriminatory. It happens to anyone willing to part with information.

Educate yourself by seeking out information on identity theft and be particularly mindful of pretexting schemes. Refuse to give out personal information over the phone, in person, by mail or through the Internet unless you are certain you know the person you're giving the information to, or unless you made the initial contact. If you are not certain about the person asking for information, ask for his/her name, the name of the company being represented, and a phone number. Then call the customer service department for that company using the telephone number provided on your statements – not the number provided by the caller – and tell the customer service representative about the call. If it is a legitimate request you will be transferred to the correct department. If not, ask to be transferred to the fraud department to report the incident.

What are ‘breeder’ documents?

Breeder Documents are “Gold Mine” to Identity Thieves

Some identity theft crimes are simple to sort out and stop, especially if they are related to credit card fraud. Closing an account and opening a new one may be all that's necessary to erase the damage and prevent new incidents from occurring. However, if we stay true to the definition of identity theft, where thieves assume your identity and create a whole new history in your name, the crime becomes much more serious. You may find your record shows you've defaulted on home or car loans, filed for bankruptcy or have a criminal record with a warrant out for your arrest.

Information and credentials used for identity theft are often referred to as “breeder” documents, and they are a gold mine to identity thieves. That's because these forms of identification, such as birth certificates, social security numbers, and date of birth, can be used over and over again to “breed” new accounts, gain credit, acquire a driver's license, secure a passport, and on infinitum, creating a completely new history – and financial nightmare – for the unsuspecting victim.

The time spent trying to unravel the resulting wide-reaching web of deceit and falsification could take months and, for the most serious offenses, it could take years. Understanding how identity theft occurs and learning ways to protect your sensitive information is the first step to prevention.

For more information on identity theft, precautions you can take to guard against it, and what to do if you become a victim, visit the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) web site.

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Guru Spotlight
Jolyn Wells-Moran