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What is "identity theft"?

Identity Theft Basics

Robert Siciliano (Identity Theft Expert and CEO) gives expert video advice on: What are the most common kinds of low-tech identity theft?; What kind of personal information should I avoid giving out?; What are some of the ways my identity can be stolen? and more...

What is "identity theft"?

Identity theft is when someone compromises your personal information and they either open up accounts under your name, or they essentially become you. They can even live as you. The identity theft assumption in the Terrence Act was created in 1998, which essentially was the very first law that said that identity theft was a crime and it was in fact illegal. Since that time there have been many additional laws on the books that have strengthened penalties for identity theft.

How big a problem is identity theft, nationally?

Identity theft is affecting as many as 10 million people per year, to the tune of more than $50 billion. The Internet has fuelled identity theft because it has made information so readily available. In addition to that, the speed of these technologies that we enjoy, has far outpaced the security necessary to keep all of our information safe and secure. Additionally, the way in which we are identified is fundamentally flawed. We were never meant to be identified via search Social Security cards or Social Security numbers. In addition to that, birth certificates are just paper documents that easily can be counterfeited. Our driver's license are documents that, anybody with a desktop PC and scanner and a printer, can simply create a fake form of ID. The speed of technology for example, in a small printer that you use for your digital camera. That one technology alone has essentially antiquated all forms of identification. When you think about it, years and years ago, you had to go to a photo mat or the local drug store to get your photos developed. Now you can simply do it from the convenience of your own home, and with the same technology, can create any documents of any kind.

What are the different kinds of identity theft?

When it comes to identity theft there are a number of different types of identity theft. There is financial identity theft, when somebody opens up a number of different accounts under your name. There is identity cloning, when someone essentially becomes you, they work as you and they live as you. And then there's credit card fraud. There's utility fraud when someone is opening up different accounts that affect you financially in some way.

What are the most common kinds of low-tech identity theft?

While the Internet and information on databases is readily accessible, it is actually people and paper that are the path of least resistance for these identity thieves. Identity thieves love going through your mailbox; they love going through your trash. They even love to break into your house, go into your home office, and go into your filing cabinets. So in the real world, all of the paper that's in our lives really is the tools that identity thieves are using to access our information and to open up additional accounts under our names. That's why it's so important to turn off as much of the paper in our lives as possible. So, if your utility allows you to shut off your utility statement, your bill, you get it electronically, I would do that. If your bank says that you can shut off your statement, if your credit card says you can shut off your statement, the less paper in your life the better. So, otherwise, you have to shred everything. You have to destroy anything and everything that has your information on it. You have to lock up anything, protect anything at all that has your data on it.

What is "social engineering" or "pretexting"?

Social engineering is the modern day con. It's when a con man or con woman uses what we call a confidence crime, they come off all sales-y like a car salesman, and they're trying to extract data from you. They may call your home, posing as the lottery, posing as Publisher's Clearing House, let's say, posing as a bank, and their goal is to try to extract data from you. Often, elderly may get a call from someone posing as Medicaid, let's say, and they'll say, "At the end of the month, you're not going to get your check or your prescriptions unless you give up this information, your Social Security number, because the computers crashed." And so they'll lie and they'll use ruses to get data from someone.

What kinds of information do identity thieves want?

Identity thieves are looking for real basic information that's available in public records and in the phone book for examples name and address and phone numbers. From there they are looking for account information primary identifiers including things like social security numbers which is essentially use the key to the kingdom and then any bank account information, credit card information, any debit card, even pin numbers, passwords any form of account number that they can use to get even more information about you. Let me give you an example for example if you to throw away some prescription, an empty bottle of a prescription medication. The account number or the information on that bottle could be used to extract even more data about you where the identity thieves go ahead and call the drug store and talk to the pharmacist posing as you getting even more information about you. So any account number of any kind any bit of information that they can get about you either over the internet or thrash or via phone call is valuable to the identity thieves.

What do identity thieves do with my personal information?

Once identity thieves get your basic information they try to get even more valuable data about you again. It might be social security numbers and so on. Once they get the data their goal is to start opening up accounts under your name that lead to cash, whether those accounts are credit card accounts, bank accounts, even utilities, cellular phones, any type of an account that is a loan at a bank where eventually that can be turned into money.

What kind of personal information should I avoid giving out?

Well, unfortunately, in today's day and age, our social security number has become very valuable to just about any business that you're doing business with. Your name, your address and your phone number more than likely are going to have to be given up - for example, when you open up an account at a utility, at a video store and so on. When you go into certain establishments, they may ask you for your social security number, but you may not actually have to give it to them. But they still may require it, but they really don't know why. The unfortunate fact is our social security number has become our primary identifier, and is being requested by many institutions, many establishments that simply don't need it, but again, they're just so accustomed to getting it. It's important that you determine when it is and isn't appropriate to give out those numbers. Again, your social is your primary identifer. If it's absolutely not necessary, find out if it's not. There may be situations when you might actually have to give up those numbers in order to do business with that organization. For example, when you go to your doctor's office, more than likely you're going to have to give up your social security number. But when it comes to opening an account at the local video store, I would fight them on that. They really shouldn't have to have those numbers. If they're not going to be doing a credit check on you, I would resist giving out those numbers.

What are some of the ways my identity can be stolen?

Identity thieves go after your information in a variety of different ways. They can steal a wallet or a pocketbook, and from there they get all the information, including credit card information, possibly social security numbers and maybe your account numbers for your bank and so on. They can break into your home or they can break into your office. An identity thief could be somebody who you know that's working for you in your home or your office. Indeed it could be a nanny, a babysitter, or it could be a contractor. They could be hacking over the Internet or they could tap into your wireless connection on your computer and from there they can access your information on your hard drive. An identity thief could call you posing as utility, posing as your bank, posing as somebody to extract data from you. It could be someone who is working at any establishment that has your information. It could be an employer, or a fellow employee that extracts that information from a computer or even a filing cabinet. An identity thief could be anyone that's working at your doctor's office, or anywhere you might have a loan such as at a bank and so on. We live in what is called a "database society", and in a database society our information is on databases all over the place. And that information, unfortunately, is accessible to anybody who has access within those organizations.

Why should I care if my identity is stolen?

The unfortunate fact revolving around identity theft is that once it's stolen, there are those out there that can either commit crimes under your name or they can open up a variety of different accounts under your name. When they open up those accounts they may not be as responsible as you would be, and then they don't pay the bills. When they don't pay the bills, ultimately it affects your credit. When it affects your credit, you will be unable to buy a new home, get a loan for a car, to even refinance on your existing home. So the primary issue revolving around identity theft is either criminal acts or ruined credit.

How can I protect myself from identity theft?

To protect yourself from identity theft, you have to first start off with thinking like an identity thief, and what type of information are they looking for and where are they trying to get it from. Often, identity thieves are going right to your mailbox and they're stealing information out of your mailbox, so it would be very helpful for you to get a locking mailbox. Also to cancel, or start to actually get electronic statements, opposed to paper statements; turning off the paper in your life. So that's the mailbox. And then, in your home or your office, making sure that all that information is in a safe and secure place. If it's in a filing cabinet, making sure it's locked up. If it's on your computer, making sure it's password-protected. And then, out and about, making sure that you're not carrying too much information in your wallet or pocketbook or purse, so that if it is lost or if it is stolen, that your identity can't be compromised as a result.