Identity theft is becoming commonplace, survey shows

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: August 23, 2005

Jeff Weisman was checking the balance in his bank account online from his home when he noticed withdrawals of $494 and $495 that he hadn't made.

The 50-year-old restaurant equipment consultant from Wellington, Fla., found that there were eight unauthorized withdrawals in all over a weekend. The thefts mounted to almost $4,000 before he could contact SunTrust bank and cancel his ATM card.

Weisman doesn't know who took his money, but he suspects his identity was stolen when he gave information to an Internet site to try to win a digital camera. The lesson of his experience: "Do not respond to e-mails, no matter how attractive the offer might be," he said.

"I know how easy it is for a hacker to get someone's identity. It's pretty disgusting," said Weisman, who recovered his money from SunTrust after 14 days and signed an authorization for the bank to prosecute the thieves if they are ever caught.

Identity theft has become commonplace in America, thanks to the Internet and more convenient ways of banking and obtaining credit, say the experts. In a poll conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University, more than 50 percent of those asked said they are worried about identity theft, 35 percent said they knew of a victim, and 13 percent reported they have been victims themselves.

Scott Ksander, who investigates information technology security issues at Purdue University, said cases of identity theft are not only increasing, but the amounts of money lost are going up as well. "The dollar volume has increased. Where it was $500 lost a few years ago, today it's $5,000," he said.

Ksander said he's also seen some cases where thieves have made real estate transactions with someone else's identity. "I think they are moving into the higher dollar areas," he said. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse cites one recent case where a thief used stolen identity to obtain loans against a victim's property and bought a business in his name.

Ksander, a senior analyst with Purdue's Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance, said police are becoming more aggressive in tracking down the thieves.

"Four or five years ago, the police didn't understand how this worked, but today we are seeing an infusion of new education about this crime," he said.

But the nature of identity theft makes it a difficult and time-consuming crime for police to investigate. Many people don't discover their identity has been stolen until their checks bounce or credit is refused months later. Many never figure out how someone got all their personal information, and by the time the crime is detected, the thief often has moved on to victimize someone else.

Rae Glover, owner of a Las Vegas trucking firm, said someone used her identity to buy two cell phones in January, and she ended up paying more than $500 because she couldn't prove someone working for her wasn't responsible.

Kirk Herath, associate general counsel for Nationwide Insurance, said it's not unusual for people to have to pay all or part of the money stolen from them. A recent Nationwide survey found 16 percent of identity theft victims lost money and located one victim contemplating bankruptcy because of the losses.

"Basically, what's happened is that criminals have discovered a fairly easy way _ and a low-risk way _ of robbing people," Herath said.

Herath said he doesn't see any easy solution and noted the American economy is thriving because many businesses operate by giving customers instant credit. Victims are left struggling to prove they didn't make the purchase.

"Recovering from identity theft cane be difficult, costly and stressful, but what is most alarming is that despite the time, money and personal duress victims go through, resolution is not always achieved," he said. Nationwide is offering its customers insurance policies that provide experts to help victims clean up their credit records.

Herath said old-fashioned dumpster diving seems to be the source of much of the information that identity thieves use, and he said people need to buy shredders and destroy bank and credit card statements before they put them in the garbage.

"Nothing with your name on it should go to the curb unless it's shredded," he said.