If thieves have got your number - off a Social Security card, say - that's all they need to pose as you. Behind a rising crime wave.
Just call them 21st-century pickpockets.Skip to next paragraph
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With a bit of persistence, and some help from the web and the White Pages, those who once relied on sleight of hand to nab a wallet can now commandeer consumers' finances with just a few pieces of personal information.
Thieves can use the data, usually a name and Social Security number, to open false credit and bank accounts, as well as obtain drivers licenses and passports. The criminals are then able to spend thousands of dollars posing as people they have probably never set eyes on.
Identity theft, not even designated as a crime four years ago, now ranks as US consumers' top fraud complaint, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The problem caught fire this past decade - an unfortunate offshoot of a technological boom in the spread of sensitive personal information, experts say.
The technology has also allowed thieves to access such data in secret.
American society has been slow to respond. Most consumers still handle their personal information with casual confidence - only 3 in 5 US consumers are worried about their identities being stolen, according to a survey by eFunds, an electronic-payment company.
And the justice system continues to treat most offenses as white-collar crimes - with a punishment often amounting to little more than a hefty fine.
Many concerned with the mounting threats to personal privacy are calling for consumer education and a toughening of laws. But they have also begun to focus on a deeply rooted social cause: American's desire to shop, make deposits, access cash, and sign up for services without limitations on time and place.
Here's how the scam often works: First, a thief glances over someone's shoulder at a checkout line or sneaks a peek at an order form to learn the person's name and Social Security number. The thief then performs an online search or flips through a phone book to get a home address. That information is often sufficient to order a copy of the individual's birth certificate over the phone, or even obtain a fake driver's license. The result: a new credit card or fresh bank account in the victim's name.
A quick phone call requesting a change of address diverts bills from the account holder's attention. Unless individuals check their credit reports, the theft can go unnoticed for a few years.
It took Heidi, a San Diego resident, seven months to learn that her identity had been stolen and used to open 30 credit-card accounts. The 30-something woman, who preferred that her last name not be used for this story, learned of the theft in December, when a clerk said she had exceeded her limit on her department-store charge.
Heidi ordered a copy of her credit report. Twenty pages long, it revealed new charge accounts opened at places she had never shopped - including the Disney Store and JCPenney - and a debt exceeding $30,000. Those whose identities have been stolen spend an average of 175 hours and $808 clearing their names, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.
Like most victims of identity theft, Heidi doesn't know how the thief discovered so much information.
The task of stealing personal data is not a stretch for many criminals. Some miscreants focus on people who send out payments through their curb-side mailboxes. Others sift through incoming mail for preapproved credit-card offers, particularly mouth-watering targets for theft. Still others simply call hundreds of homes, pretending to be a banker "verifying" credit-card information.
Technology has simplified most scams. Anyone with a computer, printer, and scanner can falsify personal checks, credit cards, and IDs. One Internet site, called Info World, was recently shut down by the FTC after granting 45 days of access to fake ID templates online.