Identity theft refers generally to the unauthorized use of personal identifying and financial information to steal your money and your good credit.
Identity thieves look for drivers license information, social security numbers, bank account and credit card numbers, calling card numbers, and information on a potential victim's investment accounts, spending habits and even family information (maiden names, children's names or other "personal" information used by many people as passwords on protected accounts).
Identity thieves will use that information to empty out existing bank accounts, run up huge charges on your credit cards, and even apply for new credit cards and loans in your name.
A nationwide survey released by the Federal Trade Commission in September 2003, found that identity theft is an even bigger problem than originally believed. According to that survey, more than 9.9 million Americans were the victims of identity theft last year alone, losing a collective $5 billion. Businesses, including financial institutions, lost more than $50 billion due to identity theft. A copy of the complete FTC survey report is available here (pdf).
According to the FTC database for 2009, complaints by Colorado victims of identity theft involved the following types of fraud:
|Credit card fraud||15%|
|Phone or utilities fraud||13%|
|Government documents/benefits fraud||14%|
|Attempted identity theft||5%|
For many victims, identity theft is about more than the loss of money. It is about the loss of security, independence and self-worth. Endless paperwork. Pleading with creditors. Fending off debt collectors. Never knowing when, or if, it will stop.
Our goal at the Colorado Attorney General's Office is to provide some helpful tips to help you avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, and to walk you through some important steps in case you do become a victim.
How do thieves get my personal or financial information?
Personal identifying and financial information about you is available from many sources. Public records already contain information about birth dates, marriages, property ownership, and automobiles owned, just to name a few. A number of legitimate companies collect and sell records related to licenses, marriages and divorces, judgments, liens, bankruptcies and similar information.
Identity thieves look for even more private and personal information, including social security numbers, bank or credit card accounts, calling card accounts and other financial information. Here are just some of the ways they accomplish this:
- Stealing your purse or wallet to obtain social security cards, credit cards, drivers licenses, etc.
- Stealing mail being delivered to your home or left out for pick-up.
- Diverting your mail to another mailbox using a false "change-of-address" request.
- "Dumpster diving" -- thieves dig through dumpsters or garbage cans behind homes or businesses looking for discarded checks or bank statements, credit card or other account bills, medical records, pre-approved credit applications, etc.
- "Shoulder surfing" -- thieves watch over your shoulder as you enter your PIN into an ATM or as you key your long-distance calling card number into a pay telephone.
- "Pretext calls” -- thieves call to "verify" account information or to "confirm" an enrollment or subscription by having you repeat bank or credit card account numbers.
- Using false or misleading Internet sites to collect personal and financial information.
- Purchasing personal information from unscrupulous employees at companies with whom you do business.
- Burglarizing homes looking for purses, wallets, files containing personal and financial information.
- Burglarizing businesses looking for computers or files containing personal and financial information on clients.
- Computer hackers "breaking into" business or personal computers to steal private client files and personal financial information.
- Phony e-mail or “pop-up” messages that appear to be from your credit card company, Internet Service Provider or other entity you do business with. These phony messages claim some problem with your account and direct you to another web site where you will be asked to supply credit card and other personal information.