Identity Theft / Fraud
Identity theft has become one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States. The National Call Centre received 7,629 identity theft complaints in 2004 that reported total losses of more than $10.2 million and an additional 2,250 complaints in the first quarter of 2005 that reported total losses of more than $5.3 million. In addition, two major credit bureaus, Equifax and Trans Union, indicate that they receive approximately 1400 to 1800 identity theft complaints per month, the majority of which are from New York and California.
One reason for the increase in identity theft may be that consumers often become victims of identity theft without having any direct contact with the identity thieves who acquire their personal data. Simply by doing things that are part of everyday routine -- charging dinner at a restaurant, using payment cards to purchase gasoline or rent a car, or submitting personal information to employers and various levels of government - consumers may be leaving or exposing their personal data where identity thieves can access and use it without the consumers' knowledge or permission.
How Identity Theft Occurs
Here are just a few examples of how identity theft is committed:
Theft of Payment Cards and Documents
Identity thieves often steal purses or wallets, and steal newly issued cards or credit card applications from your residential mailbox. Some, known as "dumpster divers," will even rummage through trash to pick out bank and credit card statements. Letters that contain "pre-approved credit-card" offers, if not shredded or destroyed, can be sent back to the issuing bank requesting that the card be sent to the recipient (i.e., you), but at a new address of the identity thief's choosing.
Some identity thieves also engage in "shoulder surfing": looking over your shoulder or from a nearby location as you enter your Personal Identification Number (PIN) at an ATM machine. By installing a fake ATM device that reads your card's encoded data, or by distracting you while your card is taken or switched with another, an identity theft can then use your PIN to drain your bank account without your knowledge.
Identity thieves also "skim" or "swipe" customer credit cards at restaurants or cash stations, using an electronic device known as a skimmer. The skimmer records the personal information data from the magnetic stripes on the backs of the cards. Identity thieves then transfer or transmit those data to another location, sometimes overseas, where it is re-encoded onto fraudulently made credit cards.
E-Mail and Website "Spoofing"
Many criminals who want to obtain personal data from people online use a technique known as "spoofing": the creation of e-mails and websites that appear to belong to legitimate businesses, such as financial institutions or online auction sites. Consumers who receive e-mails claiming to be from a legitimate business are often directed to a website, appearing to be from that business, at which the consumers are directed to enter large amounts of personal data. In fact, the criminals who created these e-mails and websites have no real connection with those businesses. Their sole purpose is to obtain the consumers' personal data to engage in various fraud schemes.
Theft from Company or Government Databases
Law enforcement agencies in the United States have noticed a significant increase in efforts by identity thieves to access large databases of personal information that private companies and government agencies maintain. Criminals have broken into offices to steal computer hard drives, bribed or compromised employees into obtaining personal data for them, and hacked into databases.
What You Can Do Today to Minimize Your Risk of Identity Theft
- Sign all credit cards when you receive them and never lend them to anyone.
- Cancel and destroy credit cards you do not use and keep a list of the ones you use regularly.
- Carry only the identification information and credit cards that you actually need. Do not carry your social insurance card (Canada) or social security card (United States); leave it in a secure place. This applies also to your passport unless you need it for traveling out of country.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles and follow up with your creditors and utility companies if your bills do not arrive on time.
- Carefully check each of your monthly credit card statements. Immediately report lost or stolen credit cards and any discrepancies in your monthly statements to the issuing credit card company.
- Shred or destroy paperwork you no longer need, such as bank machine receipts, receipts from electronic and credit card purchases, utility bills, and any document that contains personal and/or financial information. Shred or destroy pre-approved credit card applications you do not want before putting them in the trash.
- Secure personal information in your home or office so that it is not readily accessible to others, who may have access to the premises.
- Do not give personal information out over the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you are the one who initiated the contact and know the person or organization with whom you are dealing. Before you share such information, ensure that the organization is legitimate by checking its website to see if it has posted any fraud or scam alert when its name has been used improperly, or by calling its customer service number listed on your account statement or in the phone book.
- Password-protect your credit card, bank, and phone accounts, but do not keep a written record of your PIN number, social insurance or social security number, or computer passwords where an identity thief can easily find them. Do not carry such information in your purse or wallet.
- Order a copy of your credit report from the major credit reporting agencies at least once every year. Check with the credit bureaus to see whether there is a charge for this service. Make sure your credit report is accurate and includes only those activities that you have authorized.
If You Are a Victim
The Department of Justice advises that if you have become a victim of identity theft, you should take three immediate steps. First, contact your bank or credit card company if you have had your checks or credit cards stolen or wrongfully obtained. Second, report the matter to your local police of jurisdiction. Police authorities often will take police reports even if the crime ultimately may be investigated by another law enforcement agency. In addition, a creditor who mistakenly believes that you are the person responsible for a fraudulent transaction may want to see a copy of a police report before correcting your credit account or credit report.
Third, report your identity theft case immediately to the appropriate government and private-sector organizations listed below. Canadian and American agencies such as these are compiling information on identity theft to identity theft trends and patterns, and using the information to assist law enforcement agencies in possible investigations.