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Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

Steve Weisman outlines identity theft threats and what you can do to avoid them.
This chapter is from the book

Identity theft can result in your being hounded by debt collectors for debts you did not incur; becoming unable to access your own credit cards, bank accounts, or brokerage accounts; having your assets stolen; being arrested for crimes committed by people who have stolen your identity; or even receiving improper medical care because your medical identity has been stolen and your medical records have been corrupted. In addition, identity theft can ruin your credit rating, which can affect your chances to get a loan, get a job, get insurance, or rent a home.

Identity theft is the number-one consumer fraud in America, according to the Federal Trade Commission. According to a study by Javelin Strategy & Research, there were 12.6 million victims (which actually might be as many as 16.6 million victims) in 2013. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the cost of identity theft to its victims in 2013 was $24.7 billion, which is $10 billion more than the cost of all other property crimes combined, and the crime is getting worse. As the global village becomes smaller and smaller due to the Internet, the conditions for international criminals committing identity theft from a world away have become greater. Unfortunately, as technology has continued to advance, legislative efforts to combat identity theft have not kept pace.

Terrorism and Identity Theft

Although the connection between terrorism and identity theft might not be immediately apparent, it is very real and threatening.

In his testimony of September 9, 2003, before the Senate Committee on Finance regarding the homeland security and terrorism threat from document fraud, identity theft, and Social Security number misuses, FBI acting Assistant Director of the Counterterrorism Division John S. Pitole said, “Advances in computer hardware and software, along with the growth of the Internet, have significantly increased the role that identity theft plays in crime. For example, the skill and time needed to produce high-quality counterfeit documents has been reduced to the point that nearly anyone can be an expert. Criminals and terrorists are now using the same multimedia software used by professional graphic artists. Today’s software allows novices to easily manipulate images and fonts, allowing them to produce high-quality counterfeit documents. The tremendous growth of the Internet, the accessibility it provides to such an immense audience, coupled with the anonymity it allows, result in otherwise traditional fraud schemes becoming magnified when the Internet is utilized as part of the scheme. This is particularly true with identity theft–related crimes. Computer intrusions into the databases of credit card companies, financial institutions, online businesses, etc., to obtain credit card or other identification information for individuals have launched countless identity theft–related crimes.

“The methods used to finance terrorism range from highly sophisticated to the most basic. There is virtually no financing method that has not at some level been exploited by these groups. Identity theft is a key catalyst fueling many of these methods. For example, an Al Qaeda terrorist cell in Spain used stolen credit cards in fictitious sales scams and for numerous other purchases for the cell. They kept purchases below amounts where identification would be presented. They also used stolen telephone and credit cards for communications back to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, etc. Extensive use of false passports and travel documents were used to open bank accounts where money for the mujahidin movement was sent to and from countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.”

When Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was described in the 9/11 Commission Report as the “principal architect of the 9/11 attacks” on the United States, was captured in 2003, his laptop contained more than a thousand stolen credit card numbers.

According to a report on Identity Theft & Terrorism prepared by the Democratic Staff of the Homeland Security Committee in 2005, “Terrorists also steal identity information to gain access to credit or cash that can be used to finance their operations.”

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