Advanced computer and telecommunication technologies have armed thieves with new ways to obtain large amounts of personal data from afar
Identity theft is among the fastest growing crimes in most of the developed countries of the world. A thief typically steals someone’s identity, opens checking and credit card accounts in that person’s name, and then goes on a spending spree. The rate of identity theft or identity fraud had so escalated in the late 1990s that some experts declared it a national crisis in America. Identity theft is the most popular and most profitable form of consumer fraud. It encompasses all types of crime in which someone illegally obtains and fraudulently uses another person’s confidential information, most often for financial gain. A person’s Social Security number is valuable to an identity thief. Armed with the Social Security number, a criminal can open a bank account or credit card account, apply for a loan, and remove funds from varying financial accounts. In some cases, criminals have assumed the victim’s identity altogether, amassing debt and committing crimes that become a part of the victim’s criminal record.
Advanced computer and telecommunication technologies have armed thieves with new ways to obtain large amounts of personal data from afar. Hackers can spy on e-mail and Internet users, silently stealing passwords or banking information. Old-fashioned concepts such as “dumpster diving” still prevail. Thieves sort through garbage for telltale signs of identity such as cleared checks, bank statements, even junk mail, such as “preapproved” credit cards. Other criminal tactics include “shoulder surfing” and “skimming.” A “shoulder surfing” criminal spies on someone as they type in a Pin number or password at an automatic teller machine (ATM). “Skimming,” one of the newest schemes, occurs when a cashier receives a credit card for a purchase, then unknown to the victim, swipes it through a portable device that records the card information. Consumer advocates estimate that 750,000 people will become victims of identity fraud every year. The statistic is a startling difference from numbers logged just a decade ago. In 1992, one of the American credit reporting agencies ‘Trans Union’ logged about 35,000 identity theft complaints. A decade later, the company received more than a million calls.
In many cases, the victim may not realize their identity has been stolen until a negative situation arises. When the crime is finally discovered, the victim must provide proof that they did not create the debt themselves. This involves a laborious process of contacting each and every company where accounts were fraudulently opened. Persons whose identities have been stolen can spend months, even years, remedying the problem. According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), the average victim spends anywhere from $1,000 to over $10,000 per incident of identity theft or fraud to reclaim and reestablish identity and credit. Victims of identity fraud should notify national credit reporting agencies immediately and request that their files be flagged with a fraud alert. The crime should also be reported to the police.
Measures can be taken to minimize the risk of identity theft. Security experts recommend carrying a limited number of ID cards and credit cards, signing all new credit cards immediately with permanent ink, steering clear from unsecured Internet sites, and never writing a PIN, password, or Social Security number on credit cards or in briefcases or wallets. Cashiers should be observed as they process an order and personal or account information should not be revealed to anyone without first verifying their identity. Other tips include creating passwords that are not obvious (i.e., do not use birth dates) and checking credit reports periodically for accuracy.