Stemming all forms of ID theft begins with self-protection

  • By Michelle Singletary
  • Wednesday, October 31, 2007 9:15pm
  • Business

No doubt many of us have heard enough about identity theft to know we have to protect our private information.

Hopefully, you’re savvy enough to recognize bogus e-mails — the ones that seem to come from your bank, an online auction site or a foreign lottery official announcing you’ve won a large cash prize. They are, you must know, just attempts to steal personal information.

But the Internet isn’t the only preferred method that identity thieves use. A new survey reiterates that crooks out to steal your personal data are just as likely to get it by old-fashioned ways, too.

Many people may believe they are more susceptible by way of the Internet, but only about half of the cases of identity theft involved the World Wide Web and/or other technological devices (credit-card encoders, for example), according to the Center for Identity Management and Information Protection.

Nontechnological means are used in the other attempts to steal someone’s identity. The criminal might simply redirect your mail by filling out a change of address card at the post office. Or he — because it’s most likely a male — will make off with your mail from your mailbox or go through your trash to find discarded documents that contain information he can use to open up credit card accounts. In 20 percent of the nontechnological cases, theft of mail, a change of address card or dumpster diving were the methods of theft.

The center, with a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, reviewed 517 closed U.S. Secret Service cases that took place between 2000 and 2006. I should note that the data used for the report does not represent all of the identity theft cases that were investigated and prosecuted during this time period by the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies.

But at least there’s more research being done in this area. The center, which was founded last year and operates from Utica College in New York, was specifically created to conduct research on identity theft and fraud. In addition to Utica, its partners include LexisNexis, IBM, the credit bureau Trans­Union, the Secret Service, FBI, United States Marshals Service, United States Postal Inspection Service, Carnegie Mellon University, Indiana University and Syracuse University.

This is the first time the Secret Service has allowed the review of its closed case files on identity theft and fraud. The Secret Service is the primary federal agency that investigates identity theft and fraud and its related activities.

“These findings shed new light on how identity theft-related crimes take place, what motivates the perpetrators, and who is being victimized, and dispels some common myths about identity theft,” said Gary Gordon, founder and executive director of the center.

It’s also important to know how this crime is committed. In 274 of the Secret Service cases, the center was able to pinpoint how the thief obtained a person’s information. A business — service, retail, financial industry or a corporation — was the point of compromise 50 percent of the time.

A company’s database was the source of identity information in a third of the cases. In about 44 percent of the cases, information or documents were stolen from retail stores, car dealerships, gas stations, casinos, restaurants, hotels, hospitals and doctors’ offices.

You still need to watch your peeps — as in relatives and friends — people who you should be able to trust. A family member or friend was the thief in 16 percent of the 274 cases.

A third of the time, thieves got their information from financial industry organizations: banks, credit unions and credit card companies. The offenders then used the fraudulently obtained information to obtain new credit card accounts, to apply for and obtain fraudulent loans, to create fake checks and to transfer funds.

According to the case analysis, there was a one in three chance that victimization was a result of the work of an insider.

What I learned from this report is this: You can’t trust any business or anybody, even family members. Despite all the claims of privacy, encryption technology and security firewalls, you’ve got to be your own information bodyguard.

&Copy; Washington Post Writers Group

Meet a typical identity thief

Age: In 42.5 percent of cases, the offenders were between the ages of 25 and 34, 18.5 percent are between 18 and 24 and only 6 percent were older than 50.

Sex: Two-thirds of identity thieves were male.

Birthplace: Twenty-four percent were born outside of the United States.

Criminal history: 71 percent of the offenders had no arrest history

Source: Center for Identity Management and Information Protection

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