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What is Identity Theft?

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If you have a television and actually get a channel that broadcasts news once or twice a day, it’s a pretty good bet that you’ve heard about identity theft. For that matter, a television isn’t a necessary requirement to know that identity theft exists. People talk about it every day. But what exactly is identity theft?

Identity theft is often confused with other crimes that lead to identity theft. As an example, a thief caught stealing credit card numbers isn’t necessarily committing identity theft. He’s committing a financial crime. Identity theft happens when a criminal steals your personal information for the express purpose of pretending to be you.

Why Steal Your Identity?

Why would anyone want to be you? If you’re anything like me, even the thought that someone would want to take over your life might make you smile and shake your head. “Go ahead,” I would tell them. “It’s all yours.” Except I don’t really mean it.

Even if you did, what an identity thief wants from you isn’t really your life; it’s just everything that tells others that your life belongs to you. Your Social Security number is one good example. A person who can’t get a Social Security number will sometimes steal one that belongs to someone else, so they can have the benefits of having a Social Security number.

Another reason that identities are stolen is to gain access to your financial accounts. In fact, this is one of the most common reasons that a criminal is trying to become you. Your power lies in your good name, and if a thief can gain control of your good name, then they also control that power.

The power that I mean is purchasing power. The ability to own a home, hold a job, and apply for credit. These are what identity thieves are after.

Who Steals Identities?

Identity thieves are not the pasty-faced, Pop-Tart eating nerds that you might picture them to be. Next time you go out to the grocery store, look around at the people who are also there. Any one of them could be an identity thief. Young, old, rich, poor, any nationality—there are no restraints that say one type of person is more likely to be an identity thief than another.

It doesn’t matter that the doctor you saw last week had the best nurses in the county. One of those nurses could be an identity thief who steals personal information from patient records and then sells that information to another criminal, who then resells it to illegal aliens. Even a single mom of three that just moved in across the street could be an identity thief.

No group of people is more or less likely to be an identity thief. Criminals steal identities for profit, and anyone in the right place with access to the right information might find the lure of extra cash too much to turn down.

How are Identities Stolen?

Above all else, identity theft is a crime of opportunity. A criminal, or even someone who is not yet a criminal, sees an opportunity, and takes advantage of it. Even criminals who work as part of identity theft rings depend on opportunity to gain access to the information they need.

In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the majority of identity theft doesn’t happen online. Really. More identity theft takes place in the ‘real world’ than online. And it often happens in ways that you would never expect.

One of the most common methods of identity theft is dumpster diving. Dumpster diving is when someone goes through your trash looking for identifying information. And you don’t have to use a dumpster. The trash can that you put out at the corner the night before pickup is just as vulnerable as a public dumpster.

Many other threats exist in the real world, too. Shoulder surfing is one that might surprise you. When a criminal is shoulder surfing, they’re watching over your shoulder, waiting to capture your personal information when you’re most unaware. Many people put themselves at risk using a cell phone. A shoulder surfer will snap pictures or capture video of buttons that you key in while you’re using the phone.

Always Remain Vigilant

It’s so difficult to know who might be an identity thief, where they might strike, or what method they may use to capture your personal information that you must always be vigilant about protecting yourself. In public and even in your own home you need to develop safe living practices that help you protect yourself.

The most important safety practice you can develop is to always be vigilant about your surroundings and the risk that you create for yourself. Think about the ways that you could be compromising your information – throwing out junk mail, leaving your mail in the mailbox for days at a time, and using your phone for credit card purchases while you’re standing in line at the grocery store. And then change those habits.

Only by being aware of the risks that are associated with identity theft, and being conscious of how you contribute to those risks can you begin to protect yourself. As the old adage goes, “knowing is half the battle.”

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