Identity Theft: Redefining an Identity Crisis
The rapid development of new technology has helped augment the efficiency and accuracy by which many of our present transactions are conducted. With the innovations ushered in by the Internet, it is now possible for individuals to accomplish tasks like purchasing airline tickets and making hotel reservations with relative ease. Aside from helping individuals acquire numerous benefits, these advancements have also provided unscrupulous individuals enhanced methods for conducting their illegal activities.
One significant threat being posed to many people is the issue of identity theft. Hammond (2003) cites a 1999 poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal where the loss of privacy ranked as the greatest of fears among the Americans that were surveyed. He goes on to note that this concern had prevailed against other serious issues such as overpopulation, global warming and terrorism.
Identity theft is a crime that “occurs when someone uses the identifying information of another person- name, Social Security number, mother’s maiden name, and so forth- to commit fraud or engage in other unlawful activities” (May, 2004, p. 2).
An identity thief in the possession of someone’s personal information can perform a multitude of transactions under the guise of his or her victim’s identity. This could range from something as simple as using the victim’s identity to prove that the identity thief is of legal age in a bar to the harrowing prospect of the victim’s current and new bank accounts being continuously emptied by the culprit.
An understanding of the fundamental concepts surrounding identity theft such as its financial impact on individuals could be classified as essential knowledge for everyone. The following sections aim to discuss the development of identity theft, significant statistical data, and methods which can be used by victims who are dealing with the situation.
Assuming someone else’s identity is not a totally recent development. There have actually been written accounts of people who have committed the act of stealing the identities of other people throughout history. Boyer (2008) notes however that it was not until the creation of the credit card that identity theft had proliferated to a larger extent.
Early stages of the credit card system did not encourage the existence of identity thieves. With the limited circulation of the cards the task of pretending to be someone else became extremely difficult, as the identities of the privileged few who held the cards could eventually be verified. The arrival of the swipe machine would ensure a rise in the number of card users, and this ultimately resulted to more than half of the households in the United States owning a credit card by 1995. Today, the prevalent use of credit cards in making online purchases has led to some estimates that around fifty to seventy-five percent of all reported identity theft cases are associated with credit card misuse (Boyer, 2008, p.12).
The apparent inadequacy of some of the current identity verification systems as well as the increasing sophistication by which identity thieves ply their trade through the use of the Internet could lead to serious repercussions. Sullivan (2004) recounts one particular case in February of 2003, when a hacker was able to access eight million credit card numbers from Data Processors International (DPI). This eventually led some of the banks involved to close down and reissue the accounts of their compromised clients.
Discussions in the following section shall provide some of the characteristics that define identity theft. These would include general descriptions of motives and methods used for the act.
Dynamics of Identity Theft
When the word identity is mentioned, most people would often associate it with roles or profession which one is engaged in, like being a student or musician. Sileo (2005) points out that only an aspect of this broader identity, called “data identity” would be vital to the identity thief. Data identity would refer to an individual’s attributes such as a name or number that a company, government office or any other organization would use to identify a specific person. This type of information would be what the conventional identity thief would be after.
Identity thieves actually have a wide array of techniques for obtaining information. May (2004) mentions some of these methods which include mail theft, using fraudulent address changes, dumpster diving, shoulder surfing, stealing or retrieving lost wallets and purses, skimming and pretexting.
A common procedure to complement the action of mail theft is called check washing where identity thieves would change details in the stolen checks such as the amount written and the beneficiary, using common household products like bleach (May, 2004, p.22).
Dumpster diving and mail theft are similar in that personal information is gathered about the target victim, although one makes use of the mailbox while the other utilizes the garbage can. Shoulder surfing would be spying on an individual engaged in activities like withdrawing from the ATM. Identity thieves can approach the post office and give a new fraudulent address for the intended victim to receive the target mail. Similarly pretexting would involve calling institutions such as the bank and posing as the victim to gain personal information. Skimming would make use of a device called a skimmer which is similar in function to the credit card scanners. It can read and store information contained in the magnetized strips of the bank and credit cards passed on it (May, 2004, p.28).
Boyer (2008) further mentions the use of hacking, spyware, phishing and spoofing as ways by which the Internet is utilized to get personal information. Hacking involves programmers who would break into computer networks to access account information. Spam would refer to fictitious email usually containing offers of free products or promos. To avail of the offer, the recipient would be required to divulge personal information. Phishing and spoofing would involve making replicas of official websites or emails which would then be used to acquire information from potential victims.
Identity thieves could be just about any person- even those people who are close to the victim. The identity thief does not necessarily need to be a computer hacker locked away in a basement, and could in fact even be a relative or friend. Statistics on the victims have shown that more than twenty-five percent of them actually knew the perpetrator of the act (Boyer, 2008, p.15). Figure 1 would further validate the assertion that identity thieves may be individuals who are familiar to the victim.
Figure 1.Statistics on proximity of identity thieves to victims. From “New Research Shows Identity Fraud Growth Is Contained and Consumers Have More Control Than They Think,” by J. Van Dyke & H. Cherico, 2006. Retrieved June 7, 2007, from the Better Business Bureau website: http://www.bbbonline.org/IDtheft/safetyQuiz.asp
Aside from the emotional trauma which may be experienced, typical consumers are also believed to lose an average of $2,400 worth of money, with some individuals even reporting losses of up to a million in the year 2005 (Boyer, 2008, pp.8-9).
Figure 2 illustrates that the number of identity fraud victims actually decreased throughout a three year sample period. However, an increase in the average value of the stolen amount from these victims can also be observed. This would infer that there had been a greater tendency for fraudulent transactions to be more debilitating for the victim in a financial sense.
Figure 2. Annual identity fraud volume statistics in the United States for the years 2003, 2005 and 2006. From “New Research Shows Identity Fraud Growth Is Contained and Consumers Have More Control Than They Think,” by J. Van Dyke & H. Cherico, 2006. Retrieved June 7, 2007, from the Better Business Bureau website: http://www.bbbonline.org/IDtheft/safetyQuiz.asp
May (2004) identified two other main reasons behind identity theft cases aside from financial gain: revenge and a fresh start. Avenging a previous offense suffered under the potential identity theft victim is a plausible reason behind the perpetration of some of these crimes. Establishing a new life for people with a bad credit history or a record of crime also served as a prevailing motive for stealing another person’s identity.
The discussions made in the preceding sections have shown that the issue of identity theft is a problem of a multifaceted nature that needs to be addressed immediately. Solutions of an individual and societal scale have been formulated by several authors and lawmakers in order to avert as well as remedy the detrimental effects of this phenomenon.
Loberg (2004) cites the enactment of several laws throughout states of America that are aimed at deterring the activities of identity thieves. One breakthrough legislation in October 2002 at New York classified identity theft or even just the illegal possession of another person’s individual information as a felony. If an individual is proven to have used the information to steal more than $500, that person could serve up to seven years in prison. The law’s application was also extended to retina scans and voice print technologies. On a personal level, Sileo (2005) suggested steps such as properly monitoring and disposing of documents with sensitive information, as well as avoiding unnecessary deals that might require personal information.
Once an individual has already become the victim of an identity theft, he or she can perform several actions to help recover from the problem. Contact should always be made with agency connected to the breach of information, such as the postal service or Social Security Admission. Bank or online accounts should be closed immediately, and new passwords or access codes should be made when new accounts are made (May, 2004).
In order for efforts to protect the citizens from identity theft to be truly successful, laws would need to be created or revised consistently as new technologies are being developed. All the parties involved in this matter, such as the financial institutions, government agencies and victims, should be required to do their contributions towards thwarting security threats. Accomplishing these and remaining vigilant, is the only way to ensure society’s victory.
Boyer, A. (2008). The Online Identity Theft Prevention Kit: Stop Scammers, Hackers, and Identity Thieves from Ruining Your Life. Florida: Atlantic Publishing Company.
Hammond, R.J. (2003). Identity Theft: How to Protect Your Most Valuable Asset. New Jersey: Career Press.
Loberg, K. (2004). Identity Theft: How to Protect Your Name, Your Credit and Your Vital Information…And What to Do When Someone Hijacks Any of These. Los Angeles: Silver Lake Publishing.
May, J.R. (2004). Johnny May’s Guide to Preventing Identity Theft. Michigan: Security Resources Unlimited.
Sileo, J. (2005). Stolen Lives: Identity Theft Prevention Made Simple. Colorado: DaVinci Publishing.
Sullivan, B. (2004). Your Evil Twin: Behind the Identity Theft Epidemic. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons.