The second a person is born, that individual is tracked and an identification number is registered. That number holds every piece of information about that person from criminal history to education to credit, but each year thousands of people are victimized by criminals who steal their identity and use it for personal profit and gain.
In 2006, the Federal Trade Commission logged more than 85,000 complaints of identity theft. But logged complaints are only the tip of the iceberg, according to consumer advocacy groups. It is estimated that 750,000 individuals have their identities stolen each year.
For the fourth year running, identity theft has topped the list of consumer complaints filed by the FTC. It accounts for 42 percent of all complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission, up 40 percent since 2002.
The Identity Theft Survey Report, published by the FTC, found that approximately 10 million Americans have had their identity hijacked by thieves. Half of all the complaints logged involve credit card and other types of account fraud.
Once a victim finds that his/her identity has been stolen, the road to recovery is not easy, as a victim spends an average of 30-60 hours over the course of months trying to resolve issues and take back that identity.
Identities are stolen in several different manners, and thieves who understand the ins and outs of identity theft can go undetected for years, slowly leaching off several victims to obtain goods, credit, and even using another’s name to avoid arrest or criminal charges.
Ted Claypoole, a technical lawyer, told TIME magazine that identity theft is a growing trend, and that stealing information is becoming easier by the day. However, identity theft is a problem that stems far back before the dawn of current day technology, as identity theft can take many forms and be used by thieves for several different purposes.
Motives behind Identity Theft
Social Security numbers are used to verify information, gain employment, file taxes, open credit cards, and apply for personal loans. Because a Social Security number is used for so many purposes, a thief who has access to such information can use it for a myriad of activities.
Credit card theft is the leading type of identity theft. A thief can easily use a stolen or lost credit card to fund personal expenses. In a similar fashion, access to a Social Security number allows a criminal to open up credit card accounts and take out loans in a person’s name. On Nov. 30 Jocelyn Kirsch, 22, and Edward K. Anderton, 25, both of Philadelphia, were arrested and accused of using their neighbors’ information to finance their luxurious jet-setting lifestyle, making national headlines.Kirsh, a senior at Drexel University and her boyfriend Anderton, a 2005 University of Pennsylvania graduate, lived in an upscale apartment building. They used their wealthy neighbors to finance a lifestyle that included stays in Paris, London, and Hawaii with luxurious dinners and services. In the course of one year, the couple spent $100,000. According to the Associated Press, Kirsh and Anderton obtained copies of their neighbors’ keys for both their front doors and their mailboxes, and used personal information stolen to obtain goods and credits while the neighbors were away. It has also been reported that this modern day “Bonnie and Clyde” used flash drives to obtain personal information from computers in the victims’ homes and installed spy ware. According to the FTC, such scenarios are not uncommon. Most victims know the criminal, and more often than not, identity theft is an “inside job,” perpetrated through ties to neighborhoods, buildings or workplaces. Yet there is more at stake with identity theft than credit card debt. Janet Lee, 54 of Utah, told SmartMoney.com in 2004 that she woke up to a nightmare when she found her Social Security number had been used to obtain two more homes, one in Texas and one in Ohio, by someone who stole her identity. On top of the two homes carrying mortgages totaling $500,000, nine car loans and various credit lines had been established in her name. Lee was technically responsible for close to $1 million in debt. Her Social Security number had become part of an intricate identity theft ring.
According to the FTC, social security numbers are generated and sold to illegal immigrants by organized crime families. The generated numbers can easily match the numbers of a legitimate citizen, and their credit and livelihood is easily at stake.
Illegal immigrants also use the numbers they’ve bought to obtain employment. In 2004, Linda Trevino attempted to gain employment from a Target in Chicago. Her application was denied under the grounds that she allegedly was already employed there. Upon investigation, it was uncovered that Trevino’s Social Security number was used by other individuals other than herself to obtain work by 37 employers, including the Target she applied to.
While work related identity theft seems the most benign, it can cause serious problems for the rightful owner of the number. One of the greatest problems is how often the number is used. Often, one Social Security number that has been bought will be passed around a family or even neighborhood and used 30-plus times to gain employment.
Richard Hamp, an assistant attorney general for the state of Utah who has prosecuted several cases involving stolen IDs and illegal immigrants, told MSNBC. “They are destroying people’s credit, Social Security benefits, and everything else. This problem has been ignored by the federal government, and it’s enormous.”
The misuse of Social Security numbers can go on for years completely undetected. In the case of Lee, her number was used for years without her ever being informed that individuals were placing her Social Security number with their own names on loan and credit applications.
There appears to be no safeguard to let victims in on the big secret. Credit agencies can see all the credit activity over the course of years; however when faced with obviously suspicious information, they often fail to contact the victim or even the local authorities.
More often than not, the victim is the last one in on the joke, experiencing financial ruin and emotional torment.
The Technological Age of Identity Theft
Identity is the unique characteristics, numbers, personal information and DNA that only the person it belongs to can provide to authenticate himself or herself. Identity theft is on the rise as the Internet’s worst security nightmare.
Experienced identity thieves use various ways to obtain access to personal information. They may get it from a business or organization they worked for, getting it from an employee who has access to one’s information, hacking, conning the information out of people, or even just stealing a wallet or purse.
Individuals may think they’re safe from identity theft because they are very careful and responsible with their credit cards and other important information. However, computers and the Internet can cause a security breach that the owner may not know about. For thieves, computers can be a treasure of personal information.
There are many different ways hackers try to get information, but the most common is through the use of spyware.
A spyware program is software that’s installed and collects information from a computer and sends it to a third party, who uses that information for personal gain. Moreover, a hacker can also obtain the information about a person it is sent over an unsecured transmission.
Many identity theft cases start with computer fraud, and many people are unaware of the risk they take when sending sensitive information over unsecured transmissions.
Fraudulent e-mails are another way identity thieves attempt to gather information about people, as they are becoming harder to detect. People are being scammed into giving away money, and in some cases, their personal information, which could lead to identity theft.
The main purpose of fraudulent emails is to try to get a person to respond with personal information or data. Many e-mail frauds will disguise themselves as a “charitable” cause or suggest that the company will send a check to the person if that individual provides banking information.
Thieves who take to the Internet to find their prey may also use “phishing” to gather the information they need. Phishing is an attempt to criminally and fraudulently acquire sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details, by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication to fool consumers.
Common targets of phishing are Ebay, Paypal and online banks. It’s usually done through emails or instant messaging, and often directs users to record personal information at a website.
Most of the phishing techniques designed for deception “spoof” or mirror a reputable company’s website and ask people to verify their information. In reality, the mirrored website is going directly to a person who wishes to use the information for personal gain.
Individuals who unknowingly receive a spoofed e-mail can be redirected to a site that is staged to look exactly like the legitimate site or commercial site such as Ebay or Paypal, and chances are, people will follow through with submitting their personal information
Phishing can also be perpetrated through phone contact. A hacker may own a phone number and a voice over IP service, and voice phishing uses fake caller-ID data to appear like a legitimate trusted organization.
Hackers may call victims and leave messages that claimed to be from a bank telling users to dial the hacker’s number regarding bank account problems. When the number is dialed, users are told to enter their account numbers and PIN.
The FBI’s Internet fraud complaint center (IFCC) has observed an increase in complaints involving different types of unsolicited email directing victims to a phony customer service type of web site.
Preventing Identity Theft
The majority of people who are victims of identity theft do not know it until they receive their credit card bills or are confronted by the authorities. Identity theft can go away quickly if detected early, but for most citizens, it’s a long, drawn out process that can ruin their financial reputation.
The after-effects of identity theft can result in a person’s being fired, blacklisted, losing assets, and even being convicted of a crime he/she did not commit. Postal Inspectors provide some useful tips in defending and preventing this crime. They suggest reviewing any consumer credit reports annually, shredding and destroying unwanted documents that contain personal information, depositing mail in U.S. Postal Service collective boxes as often as possible, and not leaving mail in mailboxes overnight or over long weekends. Before anyone submits any personal information via the Internet or through hard mail, that person should know what is safe and what is not. Information like such as a full name, address, and phone numbers has a low sensitivity and doesn’t necessarily need to be kept as private as others. Information with medium sensitivity including birthdays, birthplaces, and a mother’s maiden name should be kept as confidential as possible, but does not carry the same risk as high sensitivity information. The items that are of high sensitivity can do wonders for the criminal and do damage to the holders. One’s social security number, bank account number, credit card number, and PIN or passwords are items that should be cherished and kept as secretive as possible. Part of the problem with identity theft is that people don’t know where it is stolen from or how the thief retrieved the information. Personal and important information that is leaked can lead to bankruptcy, tax fraud, and other serious crimes in a matter of days. The Federal Trade Commission reported last year that nearly 400,000 people reported identity theft related crimes due to stolen mail. However, mail is probably the easiest thing to protect, but most overlooked. To make sure one’s mail is confidential and safe, experts suggest that mail should not be kept in an unsecured location. When someone is on vacation or out of town for a long period of time, mail should not pile up in the mailbox. Keep it at the local postal service, and get a mailbox that locks, they suggest.
The Internet is a great tool for shopping, paying bills, and researching information. However, the casual person who doesn’t use the Internet that often is a large target for identity thieves. On the flip side, people who have an abundance of computer knowledge can also be targets due to the lack of protection their computer has. Advisors suggest that people who use the Internet to pay off bills or shop use anti-spyware and anti-virus software. This will help to eliminate those tempting pop-ups and ads that will only do harm to a console. The second and probably most important step is how to check for reliable online shopping websites. Even the site that looks trustworthy may have some sort of way of ripping off a customer or stealing personal information. AC Neilson, a global marketing research firm, based in Schaumburg, Illinois, conducted a survey and found that the top security concerns of America’s online shoppers were as follows: if a person purchased an item from a website and did not receive the item, or the company sent an item different from the one specified. In either of these cases, cancel the transaction and remember this in the future. If the person’s e-mail address has been sold to a third party without consent, that website may be fraudulent. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse website, when shopping online, people should make sure they are shopping at a secure site by taking these measures: When at the website, take a look at the top of the screen. A person should see https:// next to where the address is displayed. The “s” that is displayed after “http” indicates that web site is secure. Often, shoppers do not see the “s” until they actually move to the order page on the web site.Another way to determine if a web site is a secure one is to look for a closed padlock displayed at the bottom of the computer screen. If the padlock displayed is opened, you should automatically assume that the website is not reliable, nor is it secure. Experts also suggest doing a background check on the website before you shop there and reading the Privacy and Security Policies section on the site.
The third precaution that should be taken is looking out for phishing. Experts also suggest that when using the Internet, customers should encrypt their wireless internet connection.If a person is going to sell a computer to a company, via eBay or any other online auction website, or to even a friend, experts suggest that a person erase the hard drive beforehand. Any type of archived information can be recalled, even if deleted and emptied into the recycle bin. Experts all over the country suggest investing in a paper shredder and using it at all costs. Any type of bank statements, credit card statements, credit cards, pre-approved credit card offers, ATM receipts, canceled or voided checks, expired passports/visas, tax forms, bills, and paystubs should all be shredded if being discarded. If not, they are at a high risk of being stolen if still left legible. After a credit or debit card has been stolen, or even if misplaced, the victim should immediately report it to the company. An individual should not assume it is misplaced and should make plans to order a new one. By the time he or she looks for it, it might be in the wrong hands already. Another tip is to not keep the Social Security card in a wallet. Experts suggest keeping it in a safe place at home, or even better, in a locked safe box where only that person can access it via a combination or key. Another aspect is that a person should never provide any personal information to anyone who is in contact via the phone. Anyone can pose as a legitimate business when not in person, so unless the call is initiated, a person should not give out any information via the telephone. Experts also say that people should check and then shred bank statements as soon as they arrive, opt out of pre-approved offers, should not list date of birth and/or Social Security number on resume, use ATM cards wisely, guard checkbooks, and select strong passwords that cannot be easily cracked. If you are a victim of identity theft, the FTC suggests taking these precautions. As soon as you are suspicious of even the most minor activity, you should contact your banks and credit card issuers, the three major credit bureaus, file a police report, and file a complaint with the FTC.
For Students: Young adults, especially college students, are also at risk for identity theft even if they don’t have the expenses and paperwork that adults might have. When using a school computer, students should make sure they log off their user name to disallow others to tamper with their files. Susan Gaskin-Noel, the Reference/Instruction Librarian at the Mercy College Dobbs Ferry campus, strongly agrees with this notion. “The most important thing is to remember to log off your user name. You must be wary of your surroundings and the people around you because you are in such a wide open area in a library. Anybody can just go through your files.”Students should not let peers use their credit or debit cards, or lend peers e-mail passwords because of security reasons. When applying for specific things, students should know what they can give and what they should not. Many companies try to manipulate young adults into asking for unnecessary information. Students should also follow the guidelines and tips portrayed above in their everyday lifestyle to eliminate the risk of having their personal information stolen. Yonesy Nuñez, an identity theft expert who works at the Bronx Mercy College campus, has given speeches about the subject for years. He advises students “Don’t trust anyone”, especially when it comes to this type of personal and important information. To Nuñez, this is the most important thing for a student to do to protect themselves from identity theft. When taking precautions against identity theft, Nuñez gives this advice, “Web 2.0 is an enabler. People throughout the world are connecting themselves in ways that know no boundaries. As such, students should refrain from using ‘public’ computers to access their digital information. You never know who’s capturing your information as you type.” If you as a student are suspicious of any type of criminal activity regarding your accounts, don’t be hesitant to investigate. “For starters, people should utilize the services from www.annualcreditreport.com. This service allows you to get credit reports from Experian, Equifax, and Transunion. Timed correctly, you can retrieve three free annual credit reports a year. This will allow you to verify that information on your credit report is accurate and/or give you the opportunity to dispute erroneous information,” said Nuñez.