Identity theft may be the financial world’s equivalent of a staph infection. Just when you thought you had a handle on protecting your identity from criminals, the crime has morphed into something new and far more toxic.
It has become relatively easy to find and combat traditional identity theft, which involves a stranger snatching your Social Security number and other identifying information to apply for credit in your name.
You simply request free copies of your credit report every three months and review them for accuracy. If there’s something on the report that’s not yours, you can put a fraud alert on your file and file a police report.
But identity criminals are now using your information as they commit felonies, including child abuse and terrorism. Others are using your records to file fraudulent medical claims, experts say. These new forms of identity theft are nearly invisible until they cause serious problems.
“We had one case where the [identity thief] was wanted for rape and child abuse,” said Linda Foley, director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego. The victim discovered the fraud when he was stopped for a broken tail light “and found himself lying face-down in the dirt, with guns drawn against him.”
This victim lost his business and eventually changed his name and disappeared, Foley said.
Statistics indicating just how frequently something like this happens are hard to come by, but experts say it’s a growing concern.
“I don’t have numbers, but it’s very pervasive,” said Avivah Litan, research director at Gartner Inc., a research and advisory firm. “These are rings of really bad guys who do terrible things and want to hide who they are.”
One recent case gives a glimpse of just how disturbing today’s identity criminals can be. Authorities in New York nabbed 22 alleged identity crooks in February. The ringleaders sold at least 200 new identities, complete with driver’s licenses and birth certificates, for between $7,000 and $10,000 apiece, according to law enforcement authorities. Among their customers, according to police:
• A man who was on supervised release from a 70-month federal prison sentence for drug trafficking and firearm offenses.
• A convicted felon whose driver’s license had been suspended for multiple drunk driving convictions.
• A convicted sex offender who had been returned to prison for failing to register as a sex offender. On release, he visited these identity thieves for a new driver’s license, presumably so he could again avoid registration.
• Another convicted felon, who got his fake ID while still in prison.
Police were able to crack the ring by sending an investigator to pose as someone on the government’s “no-fly” list for potential terrorist connections. He told the suspects, two of whom worked for the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, that he wanted to get a passport to fly to Pakistan.
Jennifer Leuer, general manager of the identity theft protection firm ProtectMyID.com, says there’s been a rise in medical identity theft, too. This involves crooks using stolen insurance information to make claims.
Victims might discover the fraud when they’re denied health insurance or when the thief fails to pay a deductible or co-insurance amount, which then could appear as a delinquent account on the victim’s credit report.
“It was well over a year after most victims found out about it,” she said.
How might you recognize the signs of criminal or medical identity theft and what should you do about it?
If you are the victim of criminal identity theft, you may hear about it when you attempt to register your car or renew your driver’s license, Foley said. In other cases, you might get an inkling of trouble if you are passed up for a promotion as the result of a background check.
California law gives you the right to see a background check if it’s been used against you, she added. If your employer has done a background check, ask for a copy and see if there’s something amiss.
It can be tougher to spot medical identity theft if your thief pays the deductibles and you’re not in the process of buying insurance in the open market. But since crooks usually don’t discriminate about whom they defraud, you may see signs of trouble by closely watching your credit report, Leuer said.
If you find you’ve been a victim, your first step is to file a police report, Foley said. If you’re lucky, the criminal impersonating you will have been booked for a crime, have a mug shot on file and a police record of fingerprints.
That can help you prove that they are not you. You, however, may have to pay for a LifeScan. This allows you to put your fingerprints on file and send them off to whatever law enforcement agency is dealing with your impersonator.
Make sure that you get an acknowledgment that your name has been cleared, Foley said. Victims in California can then join the California Identity Theft Registry. Run by the California attorney general’s office, it keeps a record of people who have been criminally impersonated. These individuals can obtain a card that tells any law enforcement officer that they’re not the crook who used their Social Security card or driver’s license number.
There is no such national database, Foley said. Victims in other states may have a tougher time explaining their innocence to a highway patrol officer who stops them for speeding but wants to book them for an impersonator’s crimes.
With medical identity theft, you take your police report to your insurer and try to get your records cleared of raudulent claims. That should help you remain insurable if you ever have to buy health coverage in the open market.
In the meantime, Leuer warns people to stop printing their Social Security numbers on forms in doctor’s offices. Most doctors, dentists—even the Girl Scouts—ask for this information. But they don’t need it, and they often don’t keep it in secure places.
Having your Social Security number on these forms makes you far more likely to be a potential victim. “Identity theft is how criminals try to stay under the radar,” Litan said. “But for the victim, it can have terrible implications.” Kathy Kristof’s column is syndicated by Tribune Media Services. She welcomes comments and suggestions but regrets that she cannot respond to each one. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.