Communication Six: Identity Theft

Los Alamos World Futures Institute
Student Intern

Unauthorized access to information is one problem that arises with the expansion of electronic communication, but what other vulnerabilities arise from this modern form of information transfer? As well as hacking and other methods of obtaining information impermissibly, identity theft allows an individual to communicate as another person extremely detrimentally.

When a stolen identity is used to apply for additional lines of credit, the victim can spend years trying to resolve bad debt run up by thieves in their names.

Some struggle to borrow money because of the damage to their credit scores. Others have been forced to file bankruptcy and lose their homes.

Judy Leary, the co-founder of IdentityForce, an organization bringing attention to and protection services from identity theft, writes about a friend who nearly suffered home loss from identity theft. Her friend found out when applying for a home equity loan that someone was taking out mortgages in her name. And this is not the only instance of this; there was similar activity that occurred in Los Angeles, Calif.

The FBI reports that one operation led by an unnamed real estate business owner defrauded over one-hundred homeowners out of twelve million dollars after promising to help pay a mortgage that never was repaid. This led homeowners to lose the titles to their homes and the business owner and his or her partners used the stolen money to buy the homes.

It is not uncommon for victims to suffer other forms of identity theft aside from methods regarding one’s home, as was the case with Kellie Droste. A customer-service representative from Discover called in August to inform Droste that her recent credit-card application was incomplete. The identity thief somehow had managed to get her Social Security number and full name and date of birth.

Droste said she spent dozens of hours on the phone trying to stop the fraudulent applications. She filed a police report and even had an excellent lead for investigators to pursue – an address which had been used on some of the applications. But according to Droste, it didn’t seem to matter. She was told there was little the police could do.

When asked for comment on the challenges of investigating identity theft, Phoenix police deferred to the department’s online identity-theft victim packet.

“Frequently the investigator cannot find evidence to prove who actually used the victim’s name and/or personal information over the phone or Internet.”

In other words, police are hesitant and find it difficult to solve cases of identity theft. What makes cases even more difficult to crack is that individuals can have their identity stolen in a number of ways, including while swiping credit or debit cards at the cash registers of trustworthy retailers.

Identity thieves use computer programs to infiltrate retail systems and begin siphoning off bank-card numbers when purchases are made, a method called point-of-sale hacking.
Point-of-sale system hacking is a serious and growing problem and another way to steal one’s identity, according to business-security expert Kim Singletary. Singletary, director of technical solution marketing at McAfee, a computer security software company, said the company has discovered about 130 million unique malware programs from across the Internet, up from just 1 million in 2007. Many of the programs are designed to infiltrate point-of-sale systems and steal customer data that can be sold or used to make fraudulent purchases.

In reality, no retailer can fully protect customer data because every store relies on computer systems that are inherently vulnerable. Merchants, who usually incur the greatest losses from identity theft, often don’t pursue an investigation because it is expensive, and the chances of solving the crime are slim, former federal prosecutor Mark Rasch said. As a result, identity thieves usually get away with their crimes.

The upshot is that it’s easier and safer for an identity thief to steal $100,000 worth of credit-card numbers than it would be to shoplift an inexpensive item from the store. “These crimes are going to become more numerous, and they’re going to become more sophisticated,” Rasch says.

Technology has enabled people to achieve amazing things, but with the numerous advantages also comes a number of cons. It is easier than ever to track down a person’s information and use it for self-benefit.

Identity theft is one major way this is done and it is becoming an increasingly detrimental problem. The consequences of identity theft are life-changing and lifelong, and there is still much to be done to resolve this growing issue.  

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