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The Resource Center Identity Theft & Protection | post

The 4 Top Ways to Lose Your Identity

by Neal O'Farrell on

In our post today, Intersections’ Consumer Security Adviser Neal O’Farrell shares the 4 top ways in which you can lose your identity.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading a blog in a well-known computer magazine where a retired police officer was discussing what in his experience were the top ways thieves can steal your identity. I was surprised to see at the top of the list things like skimming, dumpster diving, and Nigerian 419 scams.

Those are certainly ways you can lose your identity, but they're far from the most common. And the Nigerian 419 scam isn't identity theft at all, but simply a con job that preys on the gullible and the vulnerable.

I personally handle dozens of identity theft cases every month, and study hundreds of others. That experience has allowed me to see certain patterns about the types of identity theft we're seeing, and those most likely to trap victims.

Stolen documents. Documents are the lifeblood of identity theft, and the more documentation thieves can get on their victims, the easier it is to commit the crime.

If you have any of these documents in your home (never, ever, leave these documents in your car), and hide them well:

  • Social Security cards
  • Birth certificates
  • Bank and credit card statements
  • Pay stubs
  • Any correspondence with the IRS or Social Security Administration
  • T ax returns

I've seen a growing trend in the use of mobile id theft labs, where thieves have everything in their cars or homes to immediately turn this type of stolen personal information into forged documents, fake checks, and brand new credit cards. In one recent case, an officer told me that when he arrested a mail thief he found more than 60 blank credit cards just waiting to be turned into brand new cards using the stolen information the thief would collect that day.

Mail theft. This continues to be one of the easiest ways to start the process of identity theft. And it's fuelled in part by the uniquely American tradition of delivering mail to a publicly accessible curb sided mailbox. That's putting temptation right under the noses of thieves, and it's such an easy opportunity few can resist. Mail thieves are looking for anything they can use or sell to other thieves, even just your name or address.

Mail theft has become such a lucrative business, a thief was recently charged with hiring two people to assault a mail carrier with a Taser so that they could steal the master key used to open those common area mail boxes.

Data breaches. While it's not always easy to trace identity theft to data breaches, as consumers we can assume that many identity thefts are as a result of this growing crime.

The numbers don't lie. Over the last five years there have been an average of one new data beach every single day and as a result more than 500 million personal records have been exposed.

That has given thieves around the world a gold mine mixture of personal profiles, shopping and buying habits, personal family information, passwords, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, home addresses, personal communications and email, corporate and employee information, health records and so much more.

It's probably safe to assume that at least some of your personal information is in there somewhere, and thieves have so much of it in their possession it may take them some time to get around to you and yours. But only a matter of time.

Family, friends, and neighbors. The most tragic and upsetting type of crime is one committed by those you'd like to trust, and especially family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. But I see a constant uptick in this type of crime and often with devastating consequences.

In one case a victim found that an identity thief had been using her identity for a decade, accumulating a long criminal history, multiple convictions, and endless frauds and unpaid bills. The victim was unable to get a driver's license because the thief had so many driving convictions, and without a driver's license the victim could no longer cash checks. Her Social Security payments were being diverted, and her disability payments stopped because the thief had been working using her Social Security number.

Turns out the thief was an old family friend, and as a gesture of kindness the victim's mother had given the thief her daughter's Social Security number in a good-faith effort to help the illegal immigrant obtain a job.

There are now so many ways that your identity can be stolen, it may be safe to assume that your information is already in circulation or in the hands of thieves. So your focus should be on monitoring your name and your credit around the clock so that you'll get early warning when those thieves finally make it to you.

That doesn't mean that you should stop protecting your information in the first place. Security is about creating multiple layers of protection around you, and those layers include prevention, monitoring and response. The more you know how to do these, the easier they become.

Keep informed about the latest threats to your safety.