Identity Theft has become the fastest growing crime in in all of the world. In tops the list as the number one consumer complaint in the United States, with 19 people becoming victims of identity theft every minute. Unfortunately, with the greater use of the internet, the problem is predicted to grow.
So what is identity theft and how could it effect you? Identity theft is a form of fraud that occurs when an individual or group of people steals your personal information for the purpose of financial or social gain. It happens in a number ways. Thieves steal credit card payments and other outgoing mail from private, curbside mailboxes. They file a change of address form in the victim’s name to divert mail and gather personal and financial data. They dig through garbage cans or dumpsters in search of cancelled checks, credit card and bank statements, and pre-approved credit card offers.They hack into computers that contain personal records and steal the data. They use malware software to steal your information over the internet. They also use phishing in email to get you to give them your personal information. Of course, these are just some of the common ways this crime happens. There are new tactics being introduced all of the time.
While the majority of these crimes involve theft for financial gain, there are many different types of identity theft, ranging from driver’s license id theft to social security number theft. Statistics tell us that 19% of identity theft involves credit card or bank accounts. Here are the four most common types of identity theft complaints as reported to the Federal Trade Commission:
1. Government Documents and Benefits Fraud – this accounts for 46%*. This crime includes things like theft of your social security number, or your driver’s license, your Veterans Administration benefits, or your tax refund check. Complaints in this category increased 27 percentage points since 2010. The FTC said tax or wage-related fraud accounted for the growth in this area. Tax returns, mainly those where a refund is expected, are new targets of criminals. Another scheme uses your social security number so that illegal immigrants can get employment.
A CBS News report in June 2006, stated that a woman’s social security number was being used by 81 people. The woman, who lived in San Francisco, California, only learned of this when she received a tax statement from the IRS stating she owed $15,813 in back taxes, even though she hadn’t worked in years. Ironically, the taxes were for work performed in Texas.
2. Credit Card Fraud – this accounts for 13% of identity theft*. It can happen in a number of ways. Every time you hand your card to an waiter, or swipe it at a gas station, or use it online to purchase something, it opens you up to this type of fraud.
One reported problem happens at gas stations. Thieves install a type of skimmer at the pump that reads your credit or debit card information when you swipe your card for gas. They then sell this information.
In January 2014, ABC News reported that two Mexicans were arrested at the Texas border, after using stolen information from a Target credit and debit card security breach, to purchase several thousands of dollars. The Target security breach is believed to have involved 40 million credit and debit card accounts and the personal information of 70 million customers.
3. Phone and Utilities Fraud – this accounts for 10%*. Someone steals your personal information to use your name and credit to establish an account with the water company, or the phone company, or the electric or gas company. These people will steal your good name and credit to benefit themselves, even selling your information to a third party, where it could be used by hundreds of people.
This crime also happens with cell phones – wireless phone accounts – and it is predicted to become the number one complaint in this category.
4. Bank Account Fraud – this accounts for 6%*. This ranges from forgery to writing bad checks, and electronically transferring large sums of money.
A January 2014 LA Times article shared a story about a woman who had five accounts compromised, at three different banks.
A January 2014 report by the website Wet Paint states that an ex-con was charged with bank fraud after he opened a company account and funneled bad checks, stolen airline retirement checks, and auto loan profits to the account. It was reported that he used his new company to gain access to certain people’s information to to commit this fraud.
5. Other – this accounts for 25%*. It includes all other categories, including Medical Fraud, and Attempted Fraud.
A news article published in 2008 reported that a young marine had lost his wallet while in training camp in South Carolina. After boot camp, he was stationed in California. It was almost a year later, when his mother called and informed him that he was wanted for car theft. He also owed over $20,000 in medical bills. It turned out that a man back in South Carolina had used his driver’s license to test drive and steal new cars. This same man also had medical treatment for kidney stones and an injured hand. Before the marine could clarify the whole mess, his state tax return check was garnished, and his credit was ruined. He also faced potential issues with his medical records. If he were to visit family back in South Carolina and need medical attention, his current medical records could influence what type of medical treatment he could receive.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Identity Theft cost Americans $24.7 billion dollars in 2012. For many victims the financial and psychological effects can be damaging, and can last a very long time. So what can you do to help protect against identity theft? Here are tips to help reduce the likelihood of you becoming a victim:
– To guard against identity theft, never give out your Social Security number, credit or debit card numbers, unless you know the organization or person requesting this information. Treat it as confidential information.
– Avoid carrying your Social Security card and passport unless they are needed.
– Keep these and all important government and insurance documents in a secure place
– Never print your Social Security number on your checks.
– Carry as few debit and credit cards as possible and periodically check to make sure you still have them.
– Commit all passwords to memory. Never write them down or carry them with you.
– Make your PIN and passwords hard for someone else to guess. Don’t use your birth date, phone number or last four digits of your Social Security number.
– When using an ATM machine, make sure no one is hovering over you and can see you enter your password.
– Keep a list of your credit card and financial account numbers with phone numbers in a safe place.Do not give out financial information (account numbers, credit card numbers) unless you know the organization or person requesting this information. Notify your bank or credit card company of any suspicious phone inquiries, such as those asking for account information.
– Always review your monthly financial and credit card statements. If you see an unknown transactions, notify your bank or your credit card company immediately.
– Report lost credit and debit cards, and lost checks immediately. Your bank can immediately block account funds.
– Instead of signing the back of your credit card, write “See Photo ID,” this way if a thief takes your car, it cannot be used to make a large in-person purchase without your identification.
– Shred any bank statements and financial solicitations before disposing of them. To avoid disposal of paper statements, sign up for statements and bill payments through Online Banking.
– Put outgoing mail into a secure, official Postal Service collection box.
– Install anti-virus and anti-spam software on your computer. Don’t open email attachments from people you don’t know. Be wary of pop-ups on your computer. Sometimes you make think you are clicking to exit them, when you are passively accepting a form of malware.
– Periodically review your credit file and make certain the information is correct. You are entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). The three nationwide consumer reporting companies have set up one central website, toll-free number and mailing address through which you can order your free annual report. For a free report, visit http://www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228.
When used, these tips provide proactive measures that can help to avoid the time and financial hardships that accompany an identity theft incident. However, there is no full proof system that guarantees you will never be a victim. And that’s why the best tip one could offer is to suggest you purchase an identity theft protection plan. There are many companies offering these plans, so it would be wise to do a comparison check before you sign a contract. Most plans include credit monitoring, public records monitoring, and incident alerts that assist with the preventative measures. Where most of the plans differ is when your identity is compromised. Some companies send you a do-it-yourself kit, while others will provide some type of telephone consultation. However, the best plans provide a for a comprehensive identity restoration package that includes licensed investigators or agents that step in to assist you and do the “heavy hitting” for you. In a time a crisis, it would be a great benefit to have a professional to drive your identity restoration efforts.
Unfortunately, identity theft will be with us in the unforeseeable future. While the fear factor comes at a high level, the good part in all of this is that there are measures we can put in place to provide protection for ourselves and our families.
*United States Federal Trade Commission, 2013