If there’s anything more disconcerting than the ever-growing wave of identity theft and credit fraud across the country, it’s that so often these crimes are committed by the people closest to us. Despite the steps you may take to safeguard personal information from outside threats — strangers going through your garbage, hackers trying to break into your online accounts, scammers who call you over the phone pretending to be legitimate sources — it can be all too easy to miss the fact that many instances of ID theft stem from friends or family members. You may think leaving your birth certificate, Social Security card, passport or health insurance information lying around at home is safe precisely because it’s your home, but you may be leaving yourself vulnerable for loved ones to take advantage.
That was the case for one Junction City, Kansas man, 47-year-old Matthew Williams, who was recently found guilty for stealing his father’s identity, which he used to take out a loan for a $490,000 house. Local news affiliate KAKE reports that at the time of the incident, Williams was going into bankruptcy. He then used his father’s name, Social Security Number and even Purple Heart award to pass himself off as his father on the loan application. Williams’ father, a U.S. Army veteran, who fought in both the Vietnam and Gulf Wars, receiving a Purple Heart award for valor in the former.
On Thursday, August 27, a federal jury convicted Williams for one charge of identity theft and one charge of bank fraud. Although sentencing has not yet taken place, the news source notes that Williams could potentially earn 30 years in federal prison and a $1 million fine for the bank fraud charge, and an additional two years of prison for the identity theft.
The prospect of family members committing identity theft against one another is disconcerting enough as is, but this story illustrates just how low some fraudsters can steep, given the opportunity. This also underscores how you can never be too careful with how you protect your identity, even from your own loved ones. While there’s no completely foolproof way of averting identity theft, there are some measures you can take that can significantly reduce your risk:
- Avoid being too social over social media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are great and convenient ways of staying in touch with people we don’t get to see on a daily basis, and keeping tabs on each other’s lives, but don’t get too carried away with it. Anything from as seemingly innocuous as posting photos of a vacation while you’re away to something as common sense as posting photos of your paycheck online can make you vulnerable to the possibility of identity fraud.
- Lock ’em up: Don’t leave important papers like your birth certificate or tax return forms just lying around the house. Invest in a secure and reputable safe that you can lock your valuable possessions in so that only you can get to them.
- Micro-cut shredders are your friend: Whenever you throw away personally identifying documents you don’t need anymore, like old pay stubs or credit card applications, make sure to put them through a micro-cut shredder first. Identity thieves aren’t above going through your garbage, and even a regular shredder won’t make these papers unreadable enough.
Finally, consider registering with a credit monitoring services for a professional, third-party oversight of what’s going on in your credit file. These helpful tools can alert you in the event that certain activity indicative of fraud appears on your credit accounts, allowing you to take more proactive steps in thwarting thieves.