Identity theft is an egregious offense that can cause victims more money to repair than the cost of the crime itself. According to the Department of Justice, “Identity theft and identity fraud are terms used to refer to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain.” Some of the most common data criminals use to commit identity theft and fraud includes:
- social security numbers
- driver’s license information
- bank/credit card account information
- personal tax information
- telephone calling card numbers
- mail (i.e. pre-paid credit card offers)
Identity theft is all about acquiring money or assets without personal responsibility, whether the perpetrator steals directly from a bank account with a stolen debit card or check, or someone uses personal information to acquire home and/or auto loans. Criminals guilty of identity theft have been known to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars through various means, leaving victims with the exhaustive battle of restoring the damage, an expensive process that can take years to complete.
Shockingly, identity theft and identity fraud were not even considered federal offenses until 1998. Prior to that year, some criminals had been known to steal personal information for financial gain and harass the victims with the fact that there was nothing they could do about their loss.
Luckily, awareness and technological advancement have helped many individuals avoid becoming victims of identity theft. Following a few simple steps can help protect personal data from falling into the wrong hands:
- Exercise caution and conservation when entering, repeating, or providing personal information (i.e. when talking to financial institutions or making online purchases).
- Shred mail that contains pre-approved credit offers.
- Do not respond to emails asking for sensitive information unless you know the source is trustworthy and the connection is secure.
- Don’t let your mail accumulate if you go out of town. Have it held at the post office or collected by a trusted individual.
- Regularly check your credit and financial accounts, looking closely for even the smallest indiscretions.
- Keep meticulous personal records in a safe place.
- Obtain a copy of your credit report at least once a year.
Dealing with the results of identity theft and fraud is an ugly affair. The easiest way to avoid becoming a victim is to be conservative, careful, and aware of where your information has been and where it is going.