Identity Theft & Fraud

The more you know about identity theft, the better able you’ll be to help protect yourself against it.

It may be helpful to realize identity theft is nothing new. The first recorded instance could have dated back to biblical times. And in stories from Wild West days, outlaws sometimes murdered people so they could take on the identities of their victims, helping them avoid the law.

Technology now enables criminals to commit identity theft on a broad scale — hacking into business and government computer systems, for instance, to steal the personal information of millions of people at once. The hackers can then use the stolen personal information, such as full names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers, to commit their crimes.

There are many other ways criminals can steal your personal information, including:

Phishing: Fraudsters email intended victims, hoping to trick the recipient into taking action that might give the criminals access to significant amounts of personal information.

Malware: Using the lure of “something for nothing,” fraudsters attempt to trick their would-be victims into downloading free software from the Internet. What the victims might not realize is that the free software can include malicious software, or malware, that can give the criminals access to the victims’ computers or entire networks.

Low-tech tactics: Even without the somewhat sophisticated skills required for a technology-based attack, criminals can still commit identity theft. Mail theft and dumpster diving are two simple ways identity thieves can put their hands on documents containing personal information that can be used to steal others’ identities.

As noted above, identity theft and fraud usually refer to the same crime. Still, one could make the case that the fraud is the actual use of the stolen information for illicit gain.

What kinds of crimes can be committed once thieves are able to have others’ personal information? All sorts of them as it turns out.

While the list of identity fraud crimes is a long one, the Federal Trade Commission breaks them down into six major categories:

Credit card fraud: Using someone else’s credit card or credit card number to make fraudulent purchases

Employment or tax-related fraud: Using someone else’s Social Security number and other personal information to gain employment or file an income tax return

Phone or utilities fraud: Using another person’s personal information to open a cell phone or utility account

Bank fraud: Using someone else’s personal information to take over an existing financial account or to open a new account in someone else’s name

Loan or lease fraud: Using someone else’s personal information to obtain a loan or lease

Government documents or benefits fraud: Using someone else’s personal information to obtain government benefits