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Secrets of identity theft criminals

identity theftIt takes a certain kind of person to commit violent crime, but what about nonviolent crimes that can go unnoticed for months?

There’s a difference between the moxie necessary to bludgeon a victim to death and the ability to commit identity theft by stealing a stranger’s personal information.  But identity theft is no laughing matter.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. If you become a victim, restoring your credit and identity can be costly. Identity theft insurance, which costs between $25 and $60 per year, can help cover some of the expenses associated with restoring your identity, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

About 85 percent of identity theft crimes are perpetrated without direct criminal-to-victim contact, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s “2006 Identity Theft Survey Report” (most current data available). The majority of victims (56 percent) don’t even know how their personal information came to be compromised. 

The majority of victims don’t even know how their personal information came to be compromised.

Law enforcement agencies have established several categories for identity thieves.

Unfortunately, the first category suspect is someone that the victim already knows. Although only 15 percent of identity theft victims report a prior acquaintance with the thief, this segment is actually the most frequently reported known method of identity theft, since the majority of victims have no idea who stole their personal data or how, according to the FTC report.  Of the 44 percent who know how their information was compromised, the majority are fleeced by an acquaintance than by any other method.  Co-workers, caretakers and even family members are among those known to carry out such crimes.

Another class of identity theft criminal is the meth-head ID thief.  In a growing number of cases, especially in the American west, identity theft has been linked to methamphetamine users and pushers, according to “Combating Identity Theft,” an April 2007 report by the federal Identity Theft Task Force. The link is hard to nail down since the production and use of methamphetamines is less organized and traceable than some other illegal drugs. But certain geographic areas have seen a correlation between an increase in meth use and an increase in identity theft. Some law enforcement agencies have reported that white-supremacist groups are organizing meth users to commit identity theft in order to fund their habit and the drug machine, according to the report.

The meth-head ID thief is extremely low-tech in his methods.

Meth-head ID thieves are usually low-tech. Primarily, the crimes stem from stolen wallets and purses, as well as a pervasive penchant for mail theft.  Many times, they steal mail straight from the victims’ porches, harvesting valuable information from bills and other personal documents.

Organized crime has also joined the ranks of identity theft criminals. Always on the lookout for the next racket, and likely inspired by the success of small-time identity thieves, several major organized crime networks have made their way into the picture.  Such groups include Hell’s Angels and MS-13, the report says.

Their crimes are generally more complex and less noticeable to the victim.  They use tactics like “skimming,” using scanning devices through which victims slide a credit card or ATM card.  These skimmers can be secured on the front of a legitimate ATM machine so that the victim believes he is using a real bank service.  Hidden cameras installed by the professional crooks capture the victim entering his or her PIN on the keypad.

Other crime consortiums come together only in cyberspace, linking a network of criminals who may have no personal contact.  Often these cells are centered overseas, says the report, and use online methods exclusively.

Usually a phisher sends an e-mail that redirects the unwitting consumer to a false-front Web site designed to imitate a real business or agency.

A term you’ve likely heard is “phishing,” one of the more popular online scams in which an ID thief poses as a legitimate authority, bank or governmental agency, demanding “verification” of personal information.  Usually a phisher sends an e-mail that redirects the unwitting consumer to a false-front Web site designed to imitate a real business or agency.  When the victim enters his personal information, the ID thieves collect it.

Your social security number is generally the most crucial piece of information for an ID thief.  With it, thieves can open new lines of credit and create a variety of other fraudulent accounts – the worst form of identity theft.

The most technologically advanced identity thieves have developed a variety of spyware and other cyber-scaries that can intercept your data as you transmit it online or even log your keystrokes to record your passwords and information.

They come in all shapes and sizes and, in most cases, you’ll never even see their faces.  But the threat posed by identity thieves is no less real than a mugger in a back alley.

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