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Personal Data Loss - A Guide to Identity Theft


Identity theft is defined as a crime in which one person unlawfully obtains the personal information of another and uses it to assume the identity of that person. This personal information includes but is not limited to one's Social Security number, driver's license information, or anything else that one person can use to impersonate the identity of another.

Identity Theft Resource Guide

Identity theft can significantly affect your life, but proper data security practices can help you avoid potential threats.

The consequences of identity theft range from minor to devastating in magnitude. In some cases the victim can resolve the problem fairly quickly and with little or no losses; however, in other cases it can cost thousands of dollars and take months of work to remedy the damage that this crime can inflict. For instance, identity thieves can use a person's personal information to make purchases in their victim's name, take out loans, obtain government benefits or expensive medical care, earn paychecks, or commit numerous other crimes. As a result, victims can find themselves potentially facing unexpected tax burdens, summons to court, or rejected loan applications due to a ruined credit rating.

Quick Fact:

According to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 16 million people in 2012 alone have been victims of identity theft. In these statistics, the Department of Justice only counts victims who are age 16 or older. This does not include the number of children under the age of 16 whose information, such as their Social Security numbers, have been stolen and misused by identity thieves. In a single year, financial damages due to identity theft were estimated to have reached a total of nearly $30 billion.

How Identity Theft Happens

Criminals use a variety of methods to steal the identity of their intended victims.

  • For instance they may resort to sifting through trash for discarded paperwork that contains personal information, in a technique that is called "dumpster diving."
  • They may also attempt to steal mail from a mailbox in order to obtain information about bills and other documents that contain personal information.
  • Computer hackers may steal credit card information from retailers or account information from banks. Thieves and even employees may resort to installing card reading devices to intercept information at gasoline stations, restaurants or stores, in a technique called "skimming."
  • Another identity theft technique that is favored by cyber criminals is called "phishing." This is a technique in which criminals send emails impersonating a trusted entity such as a bank, in order to trick recipients into volunteering personal information.
  • Computer viruses are another major way in which hackers steal personal information from computers.

Identity Theft Prevention

While there is no foolproof method of preventing identity theft, there are ways in which people can reduce their risk of becoming a victim.

  • To prevent dumpster diving, always use a cross-cut shredder to destroy documents containing personal information or correspondence before throwing it in the trash. When possible, avoid discarding an entire shredded document in the same trash can on the same day, or mix it with other non-important shredded paper to frustrate determined thieves who might try to piece it together.
  • Securing mailboxes with a lock and key can deter mailbox thieves. Residents should have the post office hold mail if they expect to be away from home. Also secure personal information within a safe when possible.
  • Never do business with untrustworthy sites, for instance those that are obscure or that do not use secure HTTP. A secure website will start with "https" in its address.
  • When opening an account on a website, such as a bank, credit card company, or retailer, always use long, complex passwords, and never use the same password on multiple sites.
  • To reduce the risk of virus infections, a computer user should keep their operating system current with the latest patches, as well as protect their computer with a software firewall and anti-virus software that stays up to date with the latest virus signatures. Preferably, the anti-virus software should also scan emails for viruses. Never respond to any email that requests personal information.

No matter how many precautions a person might take to avoid becoming a victim, it is still possible to fall prey to identity theft.

  • If a bill that one regularly receives doesn't arrive in the mail, this could be a sign of attempted identity theft. Because credit agencies are required to issue a free credit report at least once per year, it is wise to make use of this free service. This can uncover any unfamiliar financial activity, which would be a sign of identity theft in progress.
  • Always scan credit card and bank statements for suspicious and unfamiliar activity as well, and follow-up immediately with the financial institution to start an investigation and remove this activity from one's record.
  • In the event that identity theft occurs, it is also important to report the incident to local law enforcement, the FBI, and the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

Additional Information about Identity Theft

Identity theft is a crime that is a problem that can have global implications. Crimes against people in the U.S. can be instigated by people living in the same city or across the world. While it may not be possible to ensure one's personal information is one hundred percent safe from identity thieves, there are many ways in which people can make it difficult to obtain. By taking the steps to ensure their personal information, people can potentially prevent undue stress, hassle, and even legal problems in the future.

If interested in learning more about identity theft, click on the following links to read further information.

  • Identity Theft and Identity Fraud: A page on the Fraud Section of The United States Department of Justice website that answers seven questions regarding identity theft and identity fraud. Click on each question individually or click "Show All" to see all answers at the same time.
  • Safety and Prevention: Identity Theft Prevention: Learn safety tips that help protect against identity theft. On this page readers will find basic safety tips as well as tips on how to protect against various types of identity theft such as online, mail, and credit card theft. The page also covers discovering and reporting this type of crime.
  • Identity Theft Information: The Harvard University Police Department provides this web page of information regarding identity theft. The information on this page includes types of identity theft, how it occurs, how to protect oneself, and what to do if victimized. The information is general and applies to everyone regardless of whether they attend the college.
  • How to Stop Credit Offers: CBS Evening News discusses how people can put an end to credit card offers, which are often used to steal private information.
  • Identity Theft Prevention Tips: A bullet pointed list of tips on how to protect oneself against identity theft.
  • Identity Crimes Most Common Schemes: On this page identity crimes are divided into two categories: technical and non-technical. Examples of each category are listed and defined.
  • Crime Prevention Tips: Review various tips on how to minimize the risk of identity theft. The page also includes contact information for the major credit bureaus.
  • Identity Theft Fast Facts: The California Department of Motor Vehicles provides this page of facts regarding identity theft. The information on this page covers the definition of identity theft, how thieves get information, prevention tips and what to do if victimized.
  • Preventing Identity Theft: A Guide for Consumers: Click on this link to open a PDF brochure from the National Crime Prevention Council on how consumers can prevent identity theft. The brochure also provides a definition of what identity theft is and examples of how it is done.
  • Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft: Discover how to learn if tax records have been affected by identity theft, how to prevent it, and what to do if affected by this type of crime. The IRS page that opens also includes an identity theft toolkit.
  • Prevent and Report Identity Theft: Learn how to prevent identity theft and how to prevent it if it should occur. The page is divided into two categories with tips/instructions listed beneath each.
  • Protect Yourself From Identity Theft: Listed on this page are various methods that people can practice in order to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.
  • Warning Signs and Steps: People who suspect they've become victims of identity theft can review warning signs associated with crime by clicking on this link. They will also learn what steps to take if they are actually a victim of it.
  • Identity Theft & Fraud: Click this link to open a page on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) website regarding identity theft. Read ways to avoid becoming a victim and click on any of three videos about phishing.
  • What Should I do if Someone is Using My Identity?: Eight steps on what to do after discovering identity theft are listed on this page.
  • Immediate Steps to Repair Identity Theft: Federal Trade Commission consumer information on what steps people should take to as soon as they discover they've become a victim of identity theft. The page is divided into two categories: immediate steps and monitor your progress.
  • Take Steps to Reduce Your Risk of Becoming a Victim of Identity Theft: A list of thirteen ways to reduce the risk of having one's identity stolen are listed on this page.
  • How Identity Theft Happens: This page on the Office of Inspector General (OIG) website lists examples of how criminals steal personal information. Links to other information regarding identity theft can also be found on this page.
  • Identity Theft Brochure: This PDF brochure provides in-depth information about identity theft, what to do, and how to protect oneself.
  • Detecting Fraud and Identity Theft: The Identity Theft Assistance Center (ITAC) explains how to detect identity theft. The page is divided into sections, including "Monitor Your Account," "Recognize Fraud," and "Check Your Credit Report."
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics: Victims of Identity Theft, 2012: Click on this link to read the latest statistics on identity theft.
  • Identity Theft: What Can You Do to Protect Yourself: This PDF brochure is from the National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General. It provides detailed information on what identity theft is, how it occurs, and includes ways that people can protect themselves.
  • Steps to Prevent Identity Theft, and What to do if it Happens: The New York Times offers this article on identity theft that explains how people can take steps to prevent the crime from happening to them. In addition, it also explains what to do if they are unable to stop it from happening.
  • Identity Theft Overview: The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) defines identity theft to readers and explains how it is a serious problem. The page also includes several examples of identity theft cases that the FBI has worked on.
  • How Identity Theft Happens and How to Protect Yourself: ABC News covers technical ways that identity theft occurs such as skimming, phishing, and hacked online shopping sites. There is also advice on how to protect oneself from these types of identity theft crimes.
  • Identity Theft Council: Clicking on this link takes readers to the website for the Identity Theft Council. This is a network that consists of members of the business community, law enforcement, and volunteers. The Council's purpose is to educate and provide victims of identity theft with support.
  • Identity Theft Victims Assistance Network: The website for the National Identity Theft Victim Assistance Network. Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the network is meant to improve and expand victim outreach programs.
  • The Identity Theft Resource Center: To visit the website for the Identity Theft Resource Center, click on this link. This is a non-profit organization that offers victim help, consumer information, and education regarding identity theft.
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