Identity theft is a crime that involves one person appropriating the personal information of another in order to commit fraud. Identity thieves wrongfully obtain the names, addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers, and bank account numbers of their victims and use this information to open credit card accounts, apply for loans, or open bank accounts. Oftentimes, seasoned identity thefts are wily enough to put in for a change of address right after applying for an account. That way the victim does not receive the unpaid bills to know that something is amiss. Being a victim of identity theft can mean ruined credit and a host of other hassles and problems. Identity theft is a white collar crime that is considered a felony offense and thieves face heavy penalties if caught.
Types of Identity Theft
Identity theft can take several forms. The one common denominator is unauthorized use of an individual’s personal information with the intent to commit fraud. According to some statistics, identity theft is used most often to commit credit card fraud, bank account fraud, and phone/utilities fraud.
True Name Fraud
True name fraud occurs when an identity thief uses a victim’s data to open new accounts. Thieves usually use such accounts to make large purchases that they never pay off. It is usually in true name fraud that a thief changes the billing address so the victim does not find out about the delinquent account.
Perpetrators of identity theft may also use your personal information to access your accounts. For example, if your credit card falls into the hands of a thief, he or she may use it to charge purchases to your account. Tech-savvy criminals may hack into online accounts to make withdrawals, transfers, or other transactions.
Criminal Identity Theft
Criminal identity theft is particularly ruthless; it occurs when a person who is arrested for another crime gives the victim’s information to the police instead of his or her own. Criminal records, fines, and outstanding warrants can thereby be clandestinely attached to the names of innocent victims.
Identity Theft Statistics
It is difficult to track the frequency with which identity theft occurs, but some federal, state, and other agencies have compiled statistics based on the information they do have.
- Approximately 42 percent of the cases reported to the Consumer Sentinel (a Federal Trade Commission database) were related to identity theft.
- The Consumer Sentinel reported that an estimated 90 percent of victims had no relationship with the person accused of stealing their identity.
- A joint study by the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) found that most victims surveyed did not find out that their identity had been stolen for more than a year after it occurred.
- The CALPIRG/PRC study also identified denied credit applications and loans and phone calls from creditors asking for payment as the most common ways in which people found out that they were victims of identity theft. About a third found out through each of these means.
- According to the Consumer Sentinel, 20 percent identity theft victims had more than one type of fraud committed against them.
- According to the Consumer Sentinel, information obtained through identity theft was used to open fraudulent credit card accounts in over 40 percent of reported cases.
- A 1998 report by the General Accounting Office made Congress aware of Secret Service data attributing a loss of $745 million in 1997 (up from $442 million in 1995) to identity theft.
Prevention of Identity Theft
In the information age, it is difficult to keep your personal information secret. In fact, many legitimate transactions require that you provide identifying information. There is no surefire way to keep your information private, but you can take steps to minimize your risk.
1) Be watchful. Pay attention when your bills come and look for inaccuracies. Order your credit report from all three major credit bureaus at least once a year.
2) Be wary. Only give out your social security number if absolutely necessary. Sometimes you may be allowed to substitute another type of information for it. Never give out personal information over the phone or Internet unless you are absolutely certain as to the identity of the other party.
3) Be wise. If your purse, wallet, credit card, or driver’s license is lost or stolen, immediately contact the major credit card companies and have a “fraud” warning placed on your account. Do not throw away papers with identifying information without tearing them up or shredding them. Avoid leaving your information exposed whenever possible.
Contact Impact Law
If you would like to learn more about identity theft, please contact our office to arrange a meeting with an attorney in your area.