Definition of Identity Theft
There has been much talk about identity theft over the past several years, but it is not a new concept. Thieves have been stealing the personal information of others to use for their own benefit throughout history. But in today’s electronic age, identity theft has become rampant.
Identity theft is a form of fraud. It involves the use of someone’s personal information or documents by the fraudster, usually to obtain money in some way. But there are also other ways that a stolen identity may be used. Some illegal immigrants steal identities to prevent deportation. Criminals may use stolen identities to prevent their crimes from showing up on their records. Identity theft has even been used to obtain medical care and prescription drugs.
How Are Identities Stolen?
In the days before computers, identity thieves often resorted to dumpster diving. That means that they stole victims’ trash and went through it, looking for information they could use. They looked for such things as canceled checks with the victim’s bank account number, address and phone number, and discarded credit card offers. Some identity thieves also stole mail in an effort to find personal information. These techniques are still used today, but are usually less fruitful thanks to consumer awareness.
Pickpocketing is another age-old identity theft method. Stealing someone’s wallet could score the thief credit cards, a photo ID, and possibly even a Social Security Card. Newer techniques with similar goals include compromising credit card readers and remotely reading information from RFID chips used in some credit cards and passports.
The use of computers by businesses to store customer information has opened up new opportunities for identity thieves. Hackers can breach the security on such computers and find a wealth of personal information. Some companies also send information to credit bureaus on removable media such as tapes or CD-ROMs, creating another target for identity thieves.
Phishing has become a favorite activity of the high-tech identity thief. This involves posing as a trusted bank or company and sending emails to its customers, or to a general email list that may include some customers. These emails ask recipients to click a link and verify their information, but instead of taking them to the bank’s website, the link goes to a site owned by the identity thief. Once personal information is entered, it can be retrieved and used by the criminal.
These are the most common methods of identity theft, but not the only ones. Identity thieves are constantly coming up with new ways to get the information they need. That’s why it’s so important to keep an eye on our credit reports. By catching suspicious activity early, we can minimize the effects of identity theft if it happens to us.