identity theft

Identity theft is a crime in which an imposter obtains key pieces of personal information, such as Social Security or driver's license numbers, in order to impersonate someone else. The information can be used to obtain credit, merchandise, and services in the name of the victim, or to provide the thief with false credentials. In addition to running up debt, an imposter might provide false identification to police, creating a criminal record or leaving outstanding arrest warrants for the person whose identity has been stolen.

Identity theft is categorized in two ways: true name and account takeover. True name identity theft means that the thief uses personal information to open new accounts. The thief might open a new credit card account, establish cellular phone service, or open a new checking account in order to obtain blank checks. Account takeover identity theft means the imposter uses personal information to gain access to the person's existing accounts. Typically, the thief will change the mailing address on an account and run up a huge bill before the person whose identity has been stolen realizes there is a problem. The Internet has made it easier for an identity thief to use the information they've stolen because transactions can be made without any personal interaction.

Although an identity thief might crack into a database to obtain personal information, experts say it's more likely the thief would obtain information by using old-fashioned methods. Retrieving personal paperwork and discarded mail from trash dumpsters (dumpster diving) is one of the easiest ways for an identity thief to get information. Another popular method to get information is shoulder surfing - the identity thief simply stands next to someone at a public office, such the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and watches as the person fills out personal information on a form.

To prevent identity theft, experts recommend that you regularly check your credit report with major credit bureaus, follow up with creditors if your bills do not arrive on time, destroy unsolicited credit applications, and protect yourself by not giving out any personal information in response to unsolicited e-mail.

Identity theft is sometimes referred to as "iJacking."

This was last updated in May 2009

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