Identity theft is a criminal offense. It occurs when a person knowingly transfers or uses, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit or to aid or abet any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of federal law or that constitutes a felony under any applicable state or local law.
In what many are calling America's fastest growing type of robbery, crooks are working without the usual tools of the trade. Forget sawed-off shotguns and ski masks: your name and social security number will do the trick, or that blank, pre-approved credit application you tossed out with the coffee grounds. Even talking on your phone or surfing the Internet can allow someone you may never meet to rob you of the one thing you may have thought safe from attack: your identity.
Identity fraud is digging deep into consumers' pockets — more than $48 billion was lost in the past year by financial institutions and businesses, and individuals lost an estimated $5 billion.
The number of ID theft victims and their total losses are probably much higher than reported. It's hard to pin down, because law enforcement agencies may classify ID theft differently--it can involve credit card fraud, Internet fraud, or mail theft, among other crimes.
The perpetrator may use a variety of tactics to obtain your personal information and drain your finances: posing as a loan officer and ordering your credit report (which lists lines of credit); "shoulder surfing" at the ATM or phone booth to get your PIN code; "dumpster diving" in trash bins behind businesses or apartments for unshredded credit applications, canceled checks, bank records or any documents containing personal information; or, stealing mail right out of your own mailbox.
It may take months before you realize you're a victim of identity theft. But, when you get turned down for credit, a car loan, or a mortgage on your dream house because you've got a bad credit rating and you know you've paid your bills, beware: The ID thief may have struck again.
Do you carry your social security number in your wallet? Consider this: That nine-digit code gives crooks access to your medical, financial, credit, and educational records. There are no legal restrictions on private company use of social security numbers. In fact, a database of names with associated social security numbers was recently found published on the Internet. What's worse, some states still use your social security number for your driver's license number -- a policy that is, fortunately, changing.
If you think you're safe because you canceled your credit cards and put a "stop" on your checking account after your wallet was stolen, think again. Once identity thieves have your information, they may open new accounts or lines of credit — under your name, for their use.
Last year alone, an estimated ten million Americans were victims of identity theft. The culprits may be employees (or patrons) of mailrooms, airlines, hotels, or personnel offices — anyone who has access to financial information. Thieves may use your credit card or encoding equipment (sold by business-supply companies) and blank cards with magnetic strips to record your account number onto a counterfeit card with a different name. Crooks sometimes seek jobs that will give them access to financial information, or they may bribe employees in such positions to supply them with the data they want.
Need a phony ID to "prove" you're the person whose name is on the credit card? Try surfing the Web. There are scores of sites with instructions on how to create a "new you." If you've got your own computer, scanner, and color printer or copier, you can create your own false IDs.
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