Identity theft is the crime of the century. Anyone and everyone can do it if they are so inclined. No special skills or equipment are needed as long as the thief has access to a computer. Identity theft can be perpetrated from anywhere in the world and everyone is vulnerable. This type of crime is invisible, doesn’t take very long, and is very profitable. Men and women are equally likely to commit this type of nonviolent crime. Teenagers sometimes try it out as a prank. The crime is ageless and can be committed by anyone from a child to an elderly person. Most identity thieves are never caught and are attracted to this type of crime due to the low probability of prosecution and the prospect of free and unlimited money.
The FBI only gets involved in high profile (and high dollar) identity theft crimes. Police don’t often pursue identity theft crimes leaving victims of identity theft in a very precarious predicament. What then is to be done? In Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan by Frank W. Abagnale these issues and many more are addressed.
Frank W. Abagnale is a former forger who now works with banks, the FBI, police, and others to prevent identity theft. Stealing Your Life is a must read for everyone. The book is an easy read and loaded with information that I couldn’t possibly cover in one blog post. Many of the stories are chilling but useful learning tools. Frank Abagnale does an excellent job of describing what identity theft is, how thieves get access to your personal information, and how your information may be used once it’s accessed. Identity theft is not a prank and it is not a harmless crime. People’s lives can be ruined by it.
Many people think that most personal information is obtained through data breaches–such as what happened recently in the Wells Fargo fiasco where bank employees used client information to open new accounts without client knowledge or permission. This does happen as indicated by the graph:
Often though people may be victims of identity theft and not even know about it for years. Sometimes you may find out you’ve been a victim by noticing an unauthorized charge on your debit card (as happened to me) or you may be denied credit because your credit has been ruined by an identity thief. College students, prisoners, the elderly, the critically ill, and young children are particularly vulnerable victims of this crime. Many identity thieves get your personal information and then apply for credit cards in your name. With that credit card they can apply for mortgages, car loans, and other types of financing. They can buy goods and services, take vacations, and even have medical and dental procedures–all while you are responsible for the bills. Sometimes this is a one time event and at other times an identity thief may completely assume your identity.
Some thieves are hackers, some get information from people, and some may physically steal the information they need. These things are bad enough, but what is amazing is how much of this information can be found through legal means. In the United States we have access to public records such as birth dates, death dates, marriage and divorce dates, phone numbers, addresses and even social security numbers. If you are into genealogy you may have looked up this type of information yourself. It’s not illegal.
To prove a point, Frank Abagnale listed three possible websites where an identity thief might glean this information. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormons, own the world’s third largest database at familysearch.com . Frank suggests that you go to this site and type in the name of someone you know who is deceased and just peruse the information that comes up. Frank typed in the name of his father and this is what he says he found:
…up came my father’s date of birth, date of death, and Social Security number, as well as the last five cities he lived in prior to his death. Because I had searched for Abagnale, I was able to scroll down to more than two hundred Abagnales-aunts, uncles, cousins, who had passed away. Some cousins I didn’t know-third cousins probably. Some died when they were twenty-one and twenty-eight. They must have been killed in Vietnam or in car accidents. But for each person I had the dates of birth and death, a social security number, and the last five localities where they lived. Everything available was derived from publicly available sources. (pp.35-36)
I took this challenge myself. I typed in the names of two different deceased family members and got very similar information–including information about me although I didn’t type in my name and I’m obviously not dead! I also got information about other living relatives such as names and locations because in one case an obituary had been recorded. I didn’t type in those names either. I could click on every name given and go to that information.
As if this isn’t chilling enough, there are some legitimate sites where you can actually buy anyone’s social security number. There are no laws in the United States that prohibit the sale of social security numbers. There may be legitimate reasons this information is needed such as businesses trying to collect on a debt. Very often though people who pay for this information don’t have legitimate uses in mind. For just $49 you can go to docusearch.com and buy a social security number. According to Frank Abagnale, sites like these don’t usually bother to verify in any way why you may actually need the information.
If all of this doesn’t have you concerned yet, the following information will. If you really want the goods you can go to netdetective.com where they will “tell you everything and anything about anybody” for $150. If you decide to check on yourself you will learn:
…where you work, what your salary is, your date of birth, your Social Security number, who you’re married to, and who you’ve been married to. They’ll tell you where you went to elementary school, where you went to high school, and where you went to college-you name it.
They claim that they do cheap background checks for $150. So if I were an identity thief, why would I waste my time looking up this information when, for $150, I have it at my fingertips? What’s $150? I’m going to get a credit card in your name, probably with a $5,000 limit, so the $150 is simply the cost of doing business.
Other sites like DocuSearch.com, will furnish personal but public information for anywhere between $49 to $150. You can even pick up what the FBI knows about you. (p.37)
If an identity thief steals your identity, it can take years and even a lifetime to straighten out your credit. That’s tough enough but some unfortunate individuals have not only had their identities stolen and credit destroyed, but have also been falsely accused of and arrested for crimes they didn’t commit. This could happen to an individual or to a group such as you and your coworkers. Crooks like identity thieves have been known to get arrested for crimes other than Identity Theft, but show a false ID to the police. They may spend a night in jail and be released with a pending court date. Of course they never show up for the court proceeding and because they used a false name. The wrong person is then picked up by the police for failure to appear–and that’s in the mildest cases. Crimes identity thieves have been known to commit and blame their victims for include drug related crimes, medical fraud, insurance fraud, traffic violations, assault, and even murder. A credit record can eventually be erased, but a criminal record is never completely erased. Thus an identity thief could also ruin your reputation.
The key to dealing with identity theft is to try to prevent it in the first place. Frank Abagnale lists 20 steps to preventing identity theft. I will briefly list those steps here, but I urge you to read this book for yourself as there is much more depth to this issue (and prevention) than I’m able to cover in just one post. Here are the 20 steps suggested by Frank Abagnale:
- Check your credit report
- Don’t give out your Social Security Number
- Protect your computer
- Keep track of your billing cycles
- Examine your financial statements like an obsessed accountant
- Guard your mail from theft
- Invest in a shredder (not a “spaghetti” shredder)
- Practice safe shopping
- Avoid sketchy ATMs
- Be suspicious of unexpected calls or letters
- Put real passwords on your accounts
- Keep your credit card close when shopping or eating out
- Use safe checks, and use them sparingly
- Secure the home front and the office front
- Carry only what you need
- Spring clean your credit cards
- Opt Out
- Read privacy policies
- Protect a deceased relative
- Place fraud alerts on your credit report
There are also many other things that Frank Abagnale suggests that you can do which are not included in the above list. His book will walk you through exactly how to implement all of his suggestions.
If you do become a victim of identity theft, you will want to check out How to Survive Identity Theft: Regain Your Money, Credit, and Reputation by David H. Holtzman.
This book is slightly newer than Frank Abagnale’s book and contains more up to date laws and resources of what you can do to fight identity theft after the fact.Many resources are listed by state. Much of what I’ve already written is also included in this book, but I think this book is also worth your time because it does have some differing information/ideas. There are also examples of legal forms you will probably need to use if you find yourself in such a serious situation.
Many businesses are making progress in fighting identity theft. In some areas of the country law enforcement is beginning to take this crime more seriously. These things alone are not enough to protect you. You must defend yourself and your family. I highly recommend that you begin with these two books.
Have you ever been the victim of identity theft? Are you taking steps to protect yourself and if so are there any that differ from those discussed in this blog?
Since this post was originally published it’s received a lot of attention. Two of my coworkers here at the Fulton County Public Library have requested to have information added added.
Olivia Owl is the head of the IT department at Fulton County Public Library. We will learn more about her when my library exploration brings us to the computer area. For now, though, Olivia told me about a movie that I did not mention in my previous post. The reason I didn’t mention it was because I didn’t know about it. However, on Olivia’s suggestion I checked it out and watched it over the Thanksgiving break. The movie is called Catch Me If You Can.
It is the true story of Frank Abagnale’s life as a forger. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank and Tom Hanks plays the law man who ultimately caught Frank. It’s because of this background that Frank Abagnale is now so good at helping to fight identity theft. I found the movie to be both funny and entertaining.
The next request comes from a staff member you have met before here on the Dewey Hop blog.
Twain Turkey was introduced way back in a blog about the Media Commons. He helps support patrons with technical skills by teaching tech classes. He also works at Adult Circulation (more about that in a future post).
Twain wanted to share some strategies he uses which he thought might be helpful to Dewey Hop readers. Twain says that he has talked to the people at his bank and has requested an email whenever a charge over $25 appears on his checking account. By receiving the email alerts, Twain is able to keep a close watch on his bank account. Twain also receives email alerts whenever charges under $2 are made. It’s important to watch out for the lower charges as well because many identity thieves will “test” the account to see if the charge goes unnoticed or to make sure it’s still an active account. Often the smaller charges will precede much larger charges although the time in between a small and large charge will vary anywhere from a few days to years.
Additionally, Twain recommends contacting all three major credit reporting agencies (something mentioned in both books discussed above) and placing a credit freeze on your own accounts. Twain uses a password with the credit agencies so that no new accounts can be opened without that password.
Please feel free to add your own thoughts/suggestions in the comment section below.