To function in contemporary “Western” civilization, you must have your papers in order. Without them, you are rendered completely handicapped; you cannot rent an apartment, get hired for a job, or even open a bank account. If these documents, or even some of the data on them were ever stolen, the effects would be immediate and long-lasting.
Identity theft is a stealth crime. The thief uses your personal information to gain access to your financial assets as well as max out on your borrowing capability. You receive the bill for his malfeasance, but it’s worse than that; now, you now have to prove to the bank, the government, and whomever else that it wasn’t you who ran up that debt. Victims are forced to exonerate themselves, which is a mockery of justice, since they are assumed to be guilty until they prove themselves innocent.
Why would this type of thief prefer to steal someone’s legal person instead of jewelry or cash? First, contact with the victim is not necessarily required. Second, gaining access to someone’s Strawman provides the key not only to their savings but also their credit. Third, the probability of getting caught is low; even if they are arrested, sentencing is much more lenient than for robbery or even mugging.
The especially creepy part about this kind of theft is that those who commit it come from every walk of life. It is not limited to the desperate or the poor; ranging from those who are relatively well off to stable working stiffs, identity thieves cross nearly every socio-economic demographic possible. The reason for this is probably due to the fact that “startup capital” is not required as well as the ridiculously noticeable success rate.
What kind of personal information are identity thieves looking for? Really, anything that allows them to impersonate anyone. What that really boils down to is the typical roll-call of first and last name, address, birth date, and especially the Social Security number (SSN). In fact, there are technologies that currently exist that permit thieves to only get a fraction of that information, for if they posses that segment, they can search publicly available records to round out their portfolio of their victims.
How do ID thieves get such personal information in the first place? Looking through your mail, the data you entered on any kind of form, copying information from a check or your driver’s license when you hand it to them…there are a myriad of techniques they use to acquire those previous bits of data with which they utilize to completely ruin your life. To make matters worse, they can even be people whose jobs require them to deal with your personal data (or at least some of it).
So, how are we supposed to deal with identity theft? Well, the government sure as hell ain’t the answer. Casting aside both principle and their behavioral history for a moment, agents of the State have provably across the board refused to assist identity theft victims. Ironically, the only real exception to this rule is the FBI (to some degree), but it is still common practice for city, county, and state LEOs to ignore or reluctantly do something as mild as accepting a filed police report. Congressmen and state legislators are equally reticent; they’d rather pass “terrorism” and bank bailout legislation than actually fix their own broken government identification document system. Unfortunately, Frank Abagnale has a bit of a hard on for the government, which I find humourous considering his infamous past as a con artist and counterfeiter; by making his living since then as a consultant for the FBI and other government organs, might he just be moving up the ladder?
What does our reformed ex-con artist counterfeiter turned government boot licker recommend that we all do in order to both prevent identity theft and mitigate it should it ever happen to one of us? In terms of the former, he recommends 20 things to be done ASAP:
1) Check your credit report
2) Don’t recklessly give out your SSN
3) Protect your computer
4) Keep track of your billing cycles
5) Examine your financial statements like an obsessed accountant
6) Guard your mail
7) Invest in a crosscutting shredder
8) Practice safe online shopping
9) Avoid sketchy ATMs
10) Be suspicious of unexpected calls or letters
11) Put real passwords on your accounts
12) Keep your credit card close when shopping or eating out
13) Use safe checks and utilize them sparingly
14) Secure both the office and home fronts
15) Carry only what you need
16) Spring clean your credit cards
17) Opt out
18) Read privacy policies
19) Protect a deceased relative
20) Place fraud alert tags on your credit reports
Once you’ve been compromised though, Abagnale recommends you immediately do the following:
1) Call the credit bureau fraud departments
2) Shut down all compromised accounts and documents
3) File a police report
4) Establish good records of everything
5) File a complaint with the FTC
Obviously, there are a lot more things he recommends doing, but they are scattered throughout the book, and I figured those two lists of prevention and treatment are sufficient to wet your appetite, should you desire even more detail.
While I understand that Abagnale was trying to convince the reader about the seriousness of identity theft, I don’t think it was entirely necessary to spend multiple chapters relating horror stories about it, even after he proffered his recommended to-do lists. He tries to blend both the watchdog function with think tank brainstorming (the latter of which benefits even more from his own experience), but he comes off as a fear monger, which I don’t think he necessarily wanted to convey. After the first dozen or so stories, you kind of get the point how serious it is; you don’t need another two dozen or more in order to understand the covert yet devastating consequences of this kind of theft. Fortunately, to his credit, for such a short book he does spend a good amount of pages focusing on the problem-solving type stuff (even if his main strength laid in temporary expedients instead of viable long-term solutions).
I do recommend “Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan,” by Frank Abagnale, if for no other reason than the detail he spends on the above-mentioned suggestions (as well as on other methods) really do deserve your serious consideration. While I may feel somewhat uneasy recommending this book despite it’s tendency to induce fear, if you simply skip those chapters (or just skim them really quickly) and focus more on what he recommends you do personally, I think a lot of benefit can be gained from that alone. Just while you’re reading it, don’t forget the author’s former occupation as an admitted professional cheater and liar.