By D.H. Domagas
As we enter the 21st Century a new and insidious crime has emerged, affecting millions of citizens and costing tax-payers billions of dollars in damages. This crime is Identity Theft.
There has been a lot of controversy about this new phenomenon. A lot of discussion and a lot of opinions.
Unfortunately, there has been a lot of confusion about this crime. A lot of misunderstanding and a lot of misconceptions.
In this article we will examine this new crime. We will explain what "identity theft" actually is, examine how this crime happens and then finally discuss methods of prevention as well as recovery.
WHAT IS IDENTITY THEFT?
"Identity Theft" is basically a crime where someone fraudulently uses or possesses the identifying information of another person, without that person's permission, with the intent to harm or defraud another.
Among some of the examples of "identifying information" include, but not limited to the following:
Basically "identifying information" is anything that differentiates a person from everyone else. So what is so important about all this stuff? Why would anyone want to "steal" these things?
Well, it just so happens criminals can do a lot with these things.
They can get credit cards, open checking accounts and obtain loans.
Criminals can get housing, such as apartments. They can get utilities for those apartments, such as electricity, water, telephone and cable services. They can rent furniture and appliances.
Criminals can get cars, motorcycles, boats, electronic goods and medical service.
Once these criminals, or "Identity Thieves," obtain the goods and services they desire, they do not have to worry about paying any bills because all the merchants and collection agencies will be looking for the victims, whose identity they have stolen.
"Well I have bad credit. So I'm not worried about someone stealing my identity."
Criminals with other people's identifying information can do other things besides obtain goods and services.
They can gain employment and obtain workman's compensation.
They can commit crimes and develop a criminal history with someone else's identifying information.
They can have warrants for their arrest under someone else's name.
I had an old college roommate that looked so much like me that people thought we were related. We had the same hair color, eye color, skin tone, height and frame. I knew his full name, birth date, social security number and driver license number.
If one day I get pulled over by the police for a traffic violation, what's to prevent me from giving the patrol officer my old college roommate's information?
The dispatcher is going to give the patrol officer a general description that is going to match mine. Should the patrol officer have an on-board computer in his patrol vehicle, the similarities between me and my old roommate should be adequate. Besides, do any of us actually look like our driver license photo?
Chances are the information that I give to the patrol officers will be accepted and I will be issued a ticket. Or to be more precise, my old college roommate will be issued a ticket.
Now am I going to court for this ticket? Most likely not. So now a warrant for my arrest will be issued. Or again to be more precise, an arrest warrant for my old college roommate will be issued.
There have been many victims who have been arrested for crimes they have not committed. There have been many victims who have applied for jobs and have been rejected because the prospective employer has done a background check and found a fraudulent criminal history.
HOW ARE CHECKS, CREDIT CARDS AND IDENTITIES STOLEN?
In this section I have included checks and credit cards because the same methods that criminals use to steal people's identities are similar to the ones these same criminals have used in the past to steal peoples checks and credit cards. In fact, many criminals who have moved from stealing television sets and jewelry to stealing checks and credit cards have now moved to stealing identities.
A boosted television set may reap a burglar fifty dollars at the most. Stolen credit cards may get a couple hundred of dollars.
Stolen identities, however, can give an enterprising thief thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars.
The Old Fashion Way
Most of the time our checks, credit cards and identities are stolen the old fashion way: they are taken from us.
They are taken from us during robberies.
They are taken from us after rapes.
They are taken from us after homicides.
They are taken from our homes.
They are taken from our work place (You would be surprised how many unattended purses you can find under desks in the office).
They are taken from our cars.
They are taken from our mail box.
A unique and interesting method of obtaining our checks, credit cards and identities is through our trash.
What makes this method unique and interesting is that in most cases this method is not illegal. In most cases taking someone else's trash is not against the law.
In most cases when you step out with the trash, drop it off to the curb, turn and walk away, that trash has now become "public property."
There are some towns and cities that municipal ordinances prohibiting the disturbance of trash, but usually that means that you cannot open up the bags and rummage through its contents right there and then. However, that dose not mean you cannot just take the bag back home and rummage through its contents in private.
The criminals call this "dumpster diving."
It is amazing the kind of things you can find in the trash: bank account statements, credit card bills, business and medical records, old checks and credit cards. One man's trash is literately another man's treasure.
Telemarketers & False Ads
It is bad enough that there are people out there who interrupt our dinner by calling us on the telephone and trying to sell us time-share property.
Now there are criminals out there who are using the same aggressive sales tactics not to sell us any products, but instead in an attempt to steal our identity. In the guise of introducing us to the latest pyramid scheme, these identity thieves stealthily obtain our full names, our birth dates, even our social security numbers and other sensitive information.
Also, these identity thieves do not limit themselves to telephone solicitations.
A group of identity thieves created false credit card application forms and mailed them out in bulk to the public. Unsuspecting victims filled out these application forms with sensitive information and mailed them back to the criminals.
Another group of identity thieves set up a booth at a job fair. Many people looking for jobs completed the applications form with their sensitive information and even provided resumes.
Another group of identity thieves set up a web site that offered free credit history checks.
Although identity thieves have developed unique and interesting methods in obtaining our identifying information, the fact of the matter is they could have just as easily asked the government or hired a business.
All our identifying information—our names, our birth dates, even our social security number and drivers license, is public information. Which means that all that information is readily available in any government facility (such as the county clerk's office) and can be legally obtained for a fee.
Also, there are hundreds of "information brokers"—businesses that specialize in collecting and selling public data to companies.
Every time you sign a release form at the doctor's office, fill out a survey, or complete an application form, you are basically giving that business permission to give your information to other businesses. Why do you think you get the kind of junk mail you get?
Even though this data is supposed to be sold to companies for "demographic purposes," it would not be all that difficult for a group of identity thieves to hold themselves out as a business and obtain the necessary information to commit their crimes.
PREVENTION AND RECOVERY
Now that we understand what Identity Theft is and how it happens, what can we do to protect our selves and if we become victims, what can we do about it?
Now keep in mind that nothing is foolproof and there are no guarantees. If someone really wanted to steal your car or break into your home, eventually your car will be stolen and your home will be broken into.
Fortunately like most crime, Identity Theft is a crime of opportunity. The criminals that engage in this crime do not know you and do not care to know you. All you are to them is a resource.
Therefore, what you are trying to do is make yourself less vulnerable, thus available to the Identity Thief. You are trying not to make it easy for the criminal to steal your identity and at the same time make things easier for you to deal with this crime.
Know your local laws concerning this crime. Does the state and city you reside in have laws addressing Identity Theft? Do they even recognize it as a crime?
Know your local law enforcement procedures concerning this crime. Even though it may be a crime, your police department may not be equipped or trained to deal with investigations concerning Identity Theft.
Know the policies and procedures, concerning Identity Theft, of the entities that have your identifying information. The entities that I am referring to will be your bank, your credit card company, your doctor and even your employer.
Find out what information they share with others. Find out especially from banks and credit cards how they handle cases of Identity Theft. If your identity is stolen, how is your bank or credit card company going to react?
Remember, different banks and credit card companies have different policies regarding the account-holder's liability in these situations.
You may be surprised as to what your may hear.
Scrutinize whom you give personal information to, especially when over the telephone. Very rarely will anyone, who initiated contact with you, ask for and expect any of your sensitive information.
Be cognizant of what you put in your mail box and in your trash can. You may wish to take that extra time and mail bills at secure postal locations and you may want to consider investing in a shredder.
Read your monthly bills and statements in a timely manner. Question and dispute any discrepancies.
Check your credit history annually. You know what credit cards and what bank accounts you have. Remember: the longer Identity Thieves go unnoticed, the more damage they can inflict on you and the harder it will take for you to recover.
Ultimately we all pay for Identity Theft. We pay for it in higher interest rates. We pay for it in higher prices in products.
Secure all sensitive documents at your home and at your work—especially your unused checks and credit cards.
Invest in a shredder.
Finally, pursue charges if you do become a victim.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE A VICTIM OF IDENTITY THEFT
The first thing to do is file a report with your local police department. The case may never be assigned to an investigator or solved if it is, but at least you will have some documentation of the crime, which will be important.
While you are in contact with the police, make sure they check to see if any warrants or criminal history is associated with your identity. Remember: Identity Thieves sometime use other people's identifying information to commit crimes.
Next, alert the credit bureaus of the crime. The reason why it was recommended that you file a police report first is because most credit bureaus request it immediately.
While you are in contact with the credit bureaus check your credit history. Remember: most Identity Thieves do not just get one credit card. They will attempt to get as many credit cards as they can before they are stopped.
Contact the affected financial institutions, merchants and government agencies and advise them of the crime. If a bank account is opened in your name, contact that bank personally. If there is a warrant out for your arrest contact the court that issued it.
Again, the reason why it was recommended that you file a police report first is because most of these institutions will request it immediately.
Finally, conduct follow-ups. Make sure the affected institutions have cleared their records of any of the false entries.
Despite all the fancy methods and clever schemes, Identity Theft is just another form of stealing.
In those terms, Identity Theft can be easy to understand and grasp. Also, using common sense and extra precautions Identity Theft can be easy to handle.
D.H. Domagas is a police officer with the Houston, Texas Police Department. He spent six years with the Forgery/Financial Crimes Unit before being assigned to the Major Offenders Division where he investigates cases involving Internet crimes against children.