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Identity Theft

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Abstract

The Federal Trade Commission considers identity theft to be the fastest growing crime in the country. The Internet has become a hot zone for attracting identity theft thieves to steal personal information. Identity theft is divided into four basic areas – financial identity theft, criminal identity theft, identity cloning and business and commercial identity theft. Criminals obtain our personal information through methods such as using an insider, dumpster diving, computer hacking, war driving, phishing and pre-texting. The Department of Justice prosecutes identity theft under federal statutes. Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, Title 18 United States Code 1028 in 1998. One of the most noted identity theft cases was USA v. Cummings. The largest hacking and identity theft case ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice involved eleven people who stole more than forty million credit and debit card numbers. To severely curtail on identity theft, President Bush mandated Executive Order 13402 called the Identity Theft Task Force. Identity theft causes immeasurable damage to peoples’ names and reputations. Greater awareness and education will help us to combat identity theft.

Identity Theft
It’s a nightmare that can leave an unsuspecting person feeling violated and vulnerable. It doesn’t care who you are or where you live. Gender, race and age are totally irrelevant. In this modern technological age, it is a crime that can realistically have any of us in its clutches at any time. Its attack may be silent but the aftereffects can continue to haunt us for a long time. This transgression is what the Federal Trade Commission considers to be the fastest growing crime in our country. It is called identity theft (Knowing Where Identity Thieves Lurk, 2008). Because we live in an age of easy credit and in an information-based economy, millions of consumers are victimized by this crime every year. According to the 2006 Gartner study, about 28 people a minute become a new identity theft victim, which is about one victim every two seconds (Facts and Statistics, 2007). Individuals aren’t the only victims of identity theft. The losses to businesses and financial institutions are about sixty billion dollars per year and continue to climb (Iannucci). What ploys do identity theft criminals use to get a hold of our personal information? What regulations is the government enacting to combat and punish perpetrators? Will consumers ever genuinely feel protected in our increasingly electronic-dependent society?
In recent years, the Internet has become an integral part of our society. Just about everyone uses a computer in one way or another. We have come to rely on the convenience and efficiency of doing our banking, shopping and communication via the Internet. For that reason, the Internet has become a hot zone for criminals to steal indentifying data like passwords, banking information and most importantly, social security numbers. Just when a person thinks he has come up with a way to protect himself, someone is out there thinking up a newer, cleverer way to get around it. With enough personal information, a criminal can virtually take over a person’s identity to conduct a wide range of illegal acts, such as falsifying loan applications and credit cards, making fraudulent withdrawals from banks, or using a person’s good name to get goods or privileges that he would not be able to get under his real name (Identity Theft and Identity Fraud, 2007). Even with advanced software programs designed to protect our personal information, identity theft continues to be a challenge to law enforcement agencies, a threat to innocent consumers and a financial drain on businesses. Identity theft is a very broad area. It is not a new crime to law enforcement; what is new is the pervasiveness of the problem. The FBI does not view identity theft as a separate crime problem but as a component of many types of crimes (The Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, 2002). There are four main categories that encompass identity theft activities. The first is financial identity theft which is simply using another person’s identity to get some type of monetary gain and results in bank or credit fraud. The second is criminal identity theft where a person poses as another and gets a state issued ID by using stolen documents or someone else’s personal information. There is another area called identity cloning where a person uses another’s information to assume another person’s identity in daily life. The criminals in these cases are often trying to hide themselves from the authorities. Lastly, there is business and commercial identity theft where a criminal uses another’s business name to get credit (Identity Theft, 2007). What tricks do skilled identity theft thieves have up their sleeves to gain access to our personal information? Sometimes the criminal has a “back door entrance”, like an insider, who could be an employee or a representative who has access to confidential information and is willing to sell it (Iannucci). Unshredded personal information carelessly tossed in the trash can be retrieved by a method come to be known as “dumpster diving”. A thief rummages through trash looking for any information they can get off of discarded bills, bank statements or checks (Fighting Back Against Identity Theft). If people aren’t meticulous about destroying sensitive financial information before tossing it, criminals can literally ruin someone’s hard earned credit rating (Knowing Where Identity Thieves Lurk, 2008). Another method a criminal uses is hacking into a computer system and posing as a person who has permission to have someone’s personal information by doing so, diverts their mail by an address change or even physically steals personal mail out of the mailbox. They can easily get a hold of pre-approved credit card solicitations, new checks and tax forms and do untold damage (Iannucci). Gyms and fitness centers have proven to be a prime place for indentify thieves to strike. They wait for people to walk into the facility. People usually do not want to take their purses or wallets in with them because they don’t want to bother securing their valuables in a locker. They unwisely think their belongings are safer locked and hidden in their car. Often thieves will break into the car and steal account numbers without leaving a trace of having been there (Knowing Where Identity Thieves Lurk, 2008). “War driving” has become a successful technique for identity theft thieves. This is when criminals take a wireless laptop and drive down residential or main streets. They are looking for homes or businesses that use wireless internet connections with unencrypted servers. By doing this, they can pilfer financial information without a person being aware of the theft until it’s too late (Knowing Where Identity Thieves Lurk, 2008). “Phishing” and “pre-texting” are ways that an identity theft criminal will pass himself off as a legitimate financial institution or company. The thief will send spam or pop-up messages to trick a person in responding and thus revealing personal information that he can then use to his advantage (Fighting Back Against Identity Theft). Along with crimes such as espionage, kidnapping and terrorism, identity theft has joined the list of some of the most serious crimes. This type of crime has become so widespread and costly for the United States that the government has passed laws that constitute identity theft as a punishable federal offense (Notorious ID Theft Criminals). The Department of Justice prosecutes identity theft and fraud under a variety of federal statutes. In the fall of 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, Title 18 United States Code 1028 (Identity Theft and Identity Fraud). This act became effective in October of 1998 and makes identity theft a federal crime with punishment up to fifteen years in prison and a maximum fine of two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars (Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998). The law previously only considered creditors who were victims of monetary losses to be the only victims but this current law recognizes any person whose identity has been stolen as a true victim. This legislation allows the Secret Service, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to fight identity theft crime. Under this act, the identity theft victim can seek restitution if the perpetrators are convicted. It also establishes the Federal Trade Commission as the central agency to handle credit agency reporting complaints, referrals, as well as resources for assistance for identity theft victims (Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998). Other offenses such as credit card fraud, computer fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud or financial institution fraud are covered under Title 18. Each of these offenses is a felony that can carry penalties as high as thirty years in prison and fines (Identity Theft and Identity Fraud). Because stricter regulations and harsher penalties have brought about new laws, some of the most dangerous identity theft criminals have been brought to justice. One of the most infamous fraud rings that the United States has ever known involved two masterminds named Linus Baptiste, an ex-felon and Phillip Cummings, help desk employee at Telecommunications Data, Inc. Baptiste and Cummings started their illegal operations in 2002 with credit reports that Cummings stole from his company. They began selling the reports for sixty dollars apiece. They soon discovered that just selling the information to others was not nearly as lucrative as using the financial information for themselves. By using other “employees”, they were able to steal the identities of more than thirty-thousand victims. They changed bank account addresses, ordered new checks and opened new lines of credit. They were able to drain victims’ financial accounts of millions of dollars. They were able to evade the law for many months but started to arouse suspicion when credit agencies began to notice the unusual amount of credit report requests. Eventually, the authorities were able to trace them to their base of operations and were able to end their scam (Notorious ID Theft Criminals, 2002). In September of 2004, Phillip Cummings was convicted in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York in the notable court case USA v. Cummings. He was convicted of wire fraud, fraud related to identification documents and information, and conspiracy. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison (FBI - Publications - Financial Crimes to the Public, 2005). James Comey, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York stated, “With a few key strokes, these men essentially “picked the pockets” of tens of thousands of Americans, and in the process took their identities, stole their money and swiped their security” (U.S. Announces, 2002) The largest hacking and identity theft case ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice involved eleven people who hacked nine major U.S. retailers and were responsible for the theft and sale of more than forty million credit and debit card numbers. The federal grand jury in Boston returned an indictment for conspiracy, computer intrusion, fraud and identity theft (Largest ID Theft Case Ever, 2002). The Department of Justice felt the effort they put forth to fight this crime showed that with law enforcement officials cooperating, they can catch the most sophisticated computer hackers. The hackers installed programs to capture card numbers, passwords and account information. Their advanced computer techniques were used to breach security systems that gathered large amounts of personal financial data that they personally used and also sold to others. This resulted in widespread losses by banks, retailers and consumers (Largest ID Theft Case Ever, 2002). Protecting the people and businesses of this country has become a mission for the Federal Trade Commission. The United States Government recognizes that identity theft extorts a heavy financial and emotional toll from its victims as well as placing a severe burden on the economy (Identity Theft is a Crime: Resources from the Government). As a way to take this rampant crime by the horns, President Bush issued Executive Order 13402 on May 10, 2006, establishing the Identity Theft Task Force (Identity Theft is a Crime: Resources from the Government, 2008). This task force is comprised of seventeen federal agencies, and is chaired by the Attorney General and co-chaired by the Federal Trade Commission Chairman. The strategic plan of the task force is organized around the life cycle of the identity theft, from the attempts of criminals to obtain personal information to the impact on its victims. The plan includes four key areas which are data protection, avoiding data misuse, victim assistance and prosecution and punishment of perpetrators (The President's Identity Task Force Report, September 2008). The plan includes recommendations on how to prevent information from falling into the wrong hands, making information less valuable to criminals by improving authentication, helping victim recovery and improving tools for effective criminal law enforcement (Prepared Statement of the Federal Trade Commission, 2007). Many of the Task Force recommendations focus on creating security for the usage of social security numbers. A Social Security number is a very valuable entity to a criminal because in many cases is the key piece of information that allows him to perpetrate fraud. Social security numbers play a vital role in our economy by enabling businesses and government to matchup information to a proper individual (Prepared Statement of the Federal Trade Commission). There’s no disputing that identity theft and fraud are very real and dangerous threats to everyone in our society. We all know someone who has had a brush with identity theft in one form or another since between nine to ten million people are victimized by this crime every year (ID Theft: Don't Give Your Identity Away, 2008). To be successful in the battle against this crime, the government, along with the private sector must make it more difficult for criminals to get the information they need to steal our identities and to quickly respond to breaches when they occur. The impact of identity theft is more than just the loss of money or property. Anyone who has been a target can verify that this is an invasive crime that causes immeasurable damage to a person’s good name and reputation in the community. Unfortunately, the effects of this horrendous crime can have unpleasant, long-lasting effects. Unlike our fingerprints that are unique and cannot be taken by someone else to use, our personal data and other identifying information can be. A line from Shakespeare’s Othello, act three, scene three, sums this up quite accurately, “But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him/And makes me poor indeed” (Identity Theft and Identity Fraud). Hopefully, with tougher laws and penalties to discourage identity thieves and with greater awareness and education about safeguarding our personal information, we can be confident that we will not be giving our identities away any longer.

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