Identity theft is a crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses an individual’s
personal data (name, driver’s license, social security number, bank account
number, credit card number, etc.) without consent for personal economic gain. According
to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as many as 9 million people have their identity
stolen each year. This alarming statistic is accompanied by the fact that the majority
of victims are not aware that their identities have even been stolen. Often, the
victims of identity theft find out about this crime only after reviewing their credit
reports, credit card statements, or were contacted by debt collectors about charges
or services that they did not make or request. These victims may lose out on job
opportunities and are denied loans for education, houses, or cars because of their
poor credit. In rare instances, the victim may find out too late that their identity
was stolen and may even be arrested for heinous crimes that they did not commit.
How is one’s identity stolen?
Skilled thieves can access your personal information in a variety of ways:
Dumpster diving- Thieves search through communal dumpsters and
neighborhood garbage cans looking for bank and credit card statements, utility bills,
or any other documents that might contain personal information that can be used.
Skimming- Credit and debit card information can be stolen when
the victim unknowingly swipes their card through a special storage devise when making
a purchase or bank deposit/ withdrawal. The card information can then be retrieved
from the devise by the thief, granting them access to your credit card and banking
Phishing- Thieves send out e-mails, spam, or pop-up messages, when
online, claiming to be your financial institution or company and requesting an update
of your personal information.
Changing your address- Your mail, including your bills and statement
information, is diverted to a new location without your consent.
Old-fashioned/Traditional stealing- Thieves steal
wallets and purses and also mail directly from the mailbox or post office that contain
your personal information. They can also bribe employees who have access to your
Pretexting- This is the practice of getting your personal information
under false pretenses. People involved in pretexting are called pretexters. They
can sell your information to a third party that may use that data to get credit
in your name, to steal your assets, or to investigate or sue you. Pretexting is
a serious offense and is against the law.
What do thieves do with a stolen identity?
Credit card fraud- With your personal information, thieves can
open up credit cards in your name and when the bills are not paid, the delinquent
accounts appear under your name and affect your credit history.
When thieves divert the credit card bills to a different address, the victim may
not be aware of identity theft for some time.
Telephone or utilities fraud- Thieves can open telephone, wireless
accounts, heating, cable TV, and electricity bills using your credit.
Bank/finance fraud- A bank account may be opened under your name
and bad checks written. Because of identity theft, you would hold full responsiblity
for the delinquencies. They can also create counterfeit checks using your name or
account number, take out loans under your name, and clone your ATM and debit cards,
draining your accounts.
Government documents fraud- Thieves can obtain a driver’s
license or identification card using your name, but with their photo. Your social
security number can be intentionally used to obtain government benefits and services.
They can also file fraudulent tax returns with your information.
Other fraud- Using your name and social security number, they can
obtain a job, rent a house, or even get medical services. During an arrest, they
may present your information to the police and when they do not appear for their
court date, a warrant for arrest is issued under your name.
How can you find out if your identity was stolen?
The majority of identity theft victims are not aware that their identities have
been stolen. As mentioned earlier, victims find out the hard way when they are contacted
by bill collection agencies, get denied a loan, get mail about a job they never
had, house they never bought, or an apartment they never rented, etc.
Awareness is the single most effective way that you can protect yourself from identity
theft. Everyone should frequently monitor their bank accounts, credit card statements,
and bills. They should also check their credit reports regularly in order to be
up-to-date with their credit history.
What should I do if I am a victim of identity theft?
You are strongly encouraged toreport any suspicious activities/unauthorized transactions
to your bank, credit card companies, and credit bureaus. The credit bureaus and
financial institutions take identity theft seriously and will require you to fill
out an “Identity Theft Report,” which will put a “fraud alert”
on your credit report. This will protect you from further fraudulent activity from
appearing on your credit report, prevent companies from collecting debts from identity
theft, or selling such information to other collection agencies. You should also
file a police report detailing specifics of the identity crime.
Never respond to “spam” or unsolicited e-mails that request identifying
data. This is a very common source of obtaining one’s personal information.
Unfortunately, when criminals steal another person’s identity to commit fraud,
it can take a substantial amount of time for the victim to clear their name.