The face of identity theft

Recognize it when you see it - and help your community identify it

     It also happened to summit keynote speaker and Resident Agent in Charge Robert "Wayne" Ivey (who does not disclose which agency he works for while speaking on behalf of LifeLock). A 27-year veteran of law enforcement, Ivey has coordinated a statewide identity theft task force and has spoken before Congress on the topic. But none of his experiences could have prevented him from becoming a victim. After using a debit card to purchase a golf bag, Ivey discovered his card had been used to fund $500 worth of 900-number phone calls. Because Ivey made the discovery a couple of days later when he was at the bank, he had a good idea who had been using his card number. Later, when the young man who had sold Ivey his golf bag was arrested by Ivey's partner, they learned the young man was responsible for $20,000 in credit card fraud and ID theft - but no other victims had reported their losses to law enforcement. The victims had each seen a transaction on their credit cards that they didn't make and reported it to the financial institutions, which just got rid of the charge. Because they weren't hurt, they didn't report it to police.

A simple crime

     Identity theft today is both a high-tech and low-tech crime.

     Waiters are still stealing credit and debit card numbers by using skimmers (special storage devices that copy data from the magnetic strip on the back of a card). More skimmers are being found on ATMs and gas pumps. Phishing scams (fraudsters e-mail spam or create a pop-up message to try to get information) and data breaches are also prevalent.

     Years ago identity theft was more opportunistic and isolated, Davis says. Now people target thousands of victims at once and don't even use your ID - they sell your data to other identity thieves. Organized crime and even terrorist organizations have gotten involved, and the crimes span internationally.

     Since September of last year, Davis says, identity thieves are more likely to be people who lost their jobs and feel desperate. Just from September to the end of 2008, the number of people searching the Internet for personal information jumped 38 percent, he says. By comparison, the number of people searching for personal information had been steadily climbing year after year by 8 percent.

     Smith points out a lot of people don't realize how close to home an identity thief can be. He's not always a stranger sitting behind a computer hacking away. It's often someone you know, maybe a neighbor using a wireless connection to see what's on your computer or a family member taking your identity.

     "We've seen the gamut," he says, "We've seen fathers take their child's ID because they've got warrants."

     However you look at it, identity theft is an easy crime. Davis envisions the wording of a fictitious identity theft recruitment poster: "'Only 1 in 700 of us ever get convicted.' You can sit at home with free software, start stealing identities and turn them into money from the convenience of your couch."

How do we stop it?

     The question is, "How do I protect myself from being a victim?"

     "Some people will say, 'It sounds like I should just carry cash.' If you carry cash, now you're exposing yourself to potential armed robbery or theft, or losing your money with no way to recover it," Ivey says.

     A lot of crimes impact us, but none at the rate that identity theft can when you compare the rate of acceleration and the volume of people it's impacting. It is affecting retailers and financial institutions, and being passed along at many levels.

     "People have to be cautious," Ivey says. "We take precautions to protect our material possessions; we have alarm systems on our homes or our cars, or we ask the neighbor to watch our house while we are on vacation. What steps are we taking to protect our good name and/or good credit, which is how most of us got our house and car? There is no 100 percent guarantee that you're not going to be a victim. But, we try to encourage everyone to take the preventative measures that put a step between them and the identity thief."

     One such step is fraud alert. Also, businesses, including doctor's offices, need to be responsible with our information.

      "You can probably tell me right now where your Social Security card is," Ivey says. "But can you tell me everywhere your Social Security number is? It's everywhere."

     People aren't shredding the documents they should be, they're not using locked filing cabinets, and they have no breach protection on their computers, Ivey says. That lack of responsibility with information is causing an acceleration of identity theft, he says.

     Steps that the Federal Trade Commission suggests taking to make identity theft more difficult include:

  • Protect Social Security numbers
  • Treat trash and mail carefully
  • Be on guard when using the Internet
  • Select intricate passwords
  • Verify sources before sharing information
  • Safeguard purses and wallets
  • Store information in secure locations
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