Identity Theft: How Criminals Get Your Personal Information

As everyone probably knows by now, identity theft is a prevalent and pervasive crime in the United States.  Millions are affected by this crime every year, with the annual damage estimated to be in the billions.  Fortunately, as the public gains greater awareness of the problem, people are making more of an effort to protect that personal information.  Criminals, however, remain undaunted and still doggedly pursue ways of getting the average individual’s personal information.  Here are some of the tactics they employ:


Phishing scams
“Phishing” generally refers to attempts to get get information from people by posing as a legitimate entity or site. A typical scam might involve sending someone an email aying that their account has been compromised and they need to supply certain personal information (username, password, social security number, etc.) in order to regain access.  If the individual supplies the information, the criminals are off to the races. 

Dumpster diving
No act is too low-tech for a criminal to employ – even digging through your trash and refuse.  It’s a lot like panning for gold:  they really only need to find that one little nugget of information to help them stake their claim to your identity.  Therefore, it’s important to take note of what you’re throwing away.  (A good shredder would be a sound investment.)

Outright theft
Leaving a wallet or purse unattended is an open invitation to thieves.  This is an easy way for them to get their hands on your personal information, and they will probably resort to just plain old theft.  However, if it’s a particularly shrewd thief, they may just copy your personal information – name, credit card numbers, driver’s license number, etc. – and not physically take anything at all.  (And why should that?  They have everything they need, and taking your wallet or purse would just tip you off.)


Needless to say, these are just a few of the tactics that criminals use in order to get their hands on your personal information.  There are many more – some simple, some sophisticated – that will allow you to become the victim of identity theft.  It is probably in your best interest to remain vigilant and protective of the personal information you divulge.

Identity Theft Defense Tactics

As you probably know by now, identity theft is generally considered to be the fastest-growing crime in the country.  Moreover, because dealing with identity theft is such a headache after-the-fact, it’s to your benefit to focus on ways to avoid becoming a victimin the first place.  That being the case, there are a couple of small things you can do to boost the odds in your favor, two of which are listed here:


Invest in a good shredder

Someone once said that the best offense is a good defense.  Here, one of the first steps in identity theft defense is minimizing the amount of personal information that is out there about you.  This, naturally, involves shredding documents that have any personal identifying information on them:  utility bills, credit card offers, bank account statements, etc.  Granted, it’s extra work, but the days when you could just discard these items by tossing them in the trash are long gone.  Dumpster-diving is nothing to a determined criminal.  The hope is that shredding will make the task of getting your personal information far more trouble than its worth.


Montior your credit

Since credit card fraud is the most common form of identity theft, you really need to pay attention to what’s going on with your credit.  To that end, you should regularly monitor your credit not just by reviewing statements, but also by getting a free copy of your credit report via the three major credit-reporting agencies.  You’re allowed to get one free copy of your credit report per year from each of the agencies; doing the math, that means you can obtain a new credit history for review purposes every four months.


Simply put, you have to be proactive when it comes to identity theft.  That means taking action, like shredding, to minimize the amount of availabe info about you that the public can get its hands on.  Moreover, you can’t wait until a red flag pops up to learn that there’s a problem; you have to be actively looking for potential problems and issues, such as monitoring your credit report. 


Fast Facts on Identity Theft

Identity theft is a crime that’s simply a nightmare for those going through it.  Trying to clear your name, recover bank account funds, deny liabiity for charges, etc.,  can really take a toll.  But there are those who feel that identity theft, as a crime, has been clown out of proportion.  Here are some short facts on the matter:

  • Identity theft is considered to be the fastest-growing crime in the U.S.
  • Roughly 700,000 become victims of identity theft every year.
  • Identity theft costs consumers an estimated $500 million to $2 billion each year.
  • Credit card fraud is the most common form of identity theft.
  • Utility fraud (using another identity to get utility service) and bank fraud are the second and third most-common forms of identity theft.
  • Approximately 40% of all fraud crimes involve identity theft.
  • It takes some victims years to get identity theft matters resolved.

Needless to say, there are many other facts and statistcs that could be cited.  Clearly, identity theft has a wide-ranging impact, and it’s important that you develop protection and defense from the threat of identity theft.





Identity Theft Defense and Protection: Credit Reporting Agencies

If you have spent any time at all looking at the issue of identity theft, you’ve surely come across references to credit reporting agencies.  Although most of us are familiar with them, there may be a few who are not, so I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss them a little.

Before getting into the agencies, it’s probably best to discuss credit.  From a financial standpoint, credit is basically an up-front loan to someone based on a good-faith belief that they will pay the money back.  To the extent that a person honors that obligation to repay, they develop “good credit.”  If they fail to repay the loan as agreed, they develop “bad credit” and their history of non-payment will make it difficult to get credit in the future.

Credit reporting agencies are in the business of tracking individual credit histories.  They keep tabs on the amount of money an individual owes to his creditors, whether he pays on time, whether he makes his payments in full, etc.   There are three major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.  Their contact information is as follows:


Equifax Consumer Fraud Division
P.O. Box 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374
(800) 525-6285

Experian Credit Fraud Center
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
(888) 397-3742

TransUnion Fraud Victim Assistance Department
P.O. Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92834
(800) 680-7289


You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of these three organizations once per year.  If you spread them out, you can get a free copy of your credit report every four months (one from a different reporting agency each time), which would allow you to regularly monitor your credit accounts.

That, in a nutshell, is a basic overview of the credit reporting agencies and how you might use them in your identity thft defense efforts. 


Resources to Use for Identity Theft Defense and Protection


Identity theft is, needless to say, a very insidious crime.  Unlike other crimes, like burglary (where your victimization is immediately recognizable), identity theft may not come to light until weeks or months after it has occurred, making it difficult to quickly determine exactly what happened.

Nevertheless there are lots of avenues for you to turn to if you have been victimized.  First and foremost, you should probably look to your State  for the laws governing this crime and for the resources to help recover from it.  (For example, many states have their own Identity Theft Victim Kit.)  This is likely to be the most helpful for your own personal situation.

Likewise, you can find many Other Resources to help your cause – especially at the Federal level, including one of the the best:  the FTC Identity Theft Site. These can help you avoid the problem by developing an adequate identity theft defense.

In short, it’s probably best to start out seeing what help you can get from your state regarding identity theft defense and protection, but keep the feds in mind as well.


Federal Identity Theft Laws and Information

In addition to the various state laws regarding identity theft, there are also several laws at the federal level.  The links below will help you become familiar with the federal statutes that address this crime (and hopefully help your own efforts at developing a strong identity theft defense and protection system). – The federal government’s one-stop resource for identity theft victims.

Federal Trade Commission

Federal Identity Theft Information (Great info courtesy of Florida’s AG site)

Federal Identity Theft Publications



Wyoming Identity Theft Resources

Wyoming Identity Theft

In Wyoming, identity theft refers to obtaining someone else’s personal identifying information and using it for any unlawful purpose.   The law can be found in Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-3-901.


Points of Contact

Office of the Attorney General
123 Capitol Building
200 W. 24th Street
Cheyenne, WY 82002
Phone:  (307) 777-7841
fax:  (307) 777-6869

Wyoming Department of Health
401 Hathaway Building
Cheyenne, WY 82002
Phone:  (307) 777-7656
Toll Free:  (866) 5710944
Fax: (307) 777-7439

Wyoming Dept. of Transportation
Driver Services – Headquarters Office
5300 Bishop Blvd.
Cheyenne, WY 82009-3340
Phone:  (307)777-4800 or (307)777-4810
Fax: (307)777-4803
Sacramento, CA 95818-2606
Phone: (866) 658-5758

Other Resources for Identity Theft in Wyoming

Wyoming Identity Theft Brochure

Wyoming ID Theft Safety Sheet

Additional Wyoming ID Theft Resources


Wisconsin Identity Theft Resources

Wisconsin Identity Theft

Under Wisconsin law, identity theft refers to the unauthorized possession or use of someone else’s personal identifying information in order to obtains goods or services.    The governing statute is WisconsinStat. § 943.201.


Points of Contact

Office of the Attorney General
114 East State Capitol
Madison, WI 53702-7857
Phone: (608-) -266-1221
Fax:  (608) 267-2779

Wisconsin Office of Privacy Protection
2811 Agriculture Drive
PO Box 8911
Madison, WI 53708-8911
Phone: (608) 224-5163
Fax: (608) 224-4677

Wisconsin Department of Health Services
1 West Wilson Street
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: (608) 266-1865

Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles
Phone: (608) 264-7447

Other Resources for Identity Theft in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Identity Theft Page

Wisconsin Identity Theft Brochure

Wisconsin Identity Theft Fact Sheet

Wisconsin ID Theft Safety Sheet

West Virginia Identity Theft Resources

West Virginia Identity Theft

West Virginia law defines identity theft as  the unauthorized use of someone’s personal identifying information in order to perpetrate a fraud.  The statute itself is West Virginia Code § 61-3-54.


Points of Contact

Office of the Attorney General
State Capitol Complex,
Bldg. 1, Room E-26
Charleston, WV 25305
Phone: (304) 558-2021
Fax:  (304) 558-0140

WV State Privacy Office
100 Dee Drive
Charleston, WV 25311
Phone:  (304) 558-7000
Fax:  (304) 558-7001

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources
State Capitol Complex, Building 3 Room 206
Charleston, WV 25305
Phone: (304) 558-0684
Fax: (304) 558-1130

West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles
Phone (304) 926-3871
Toll-Free 1-800-642-9066
Fax (304) 926-3884

Other Resources for Identity Theft in West Virginia

West Virginia AG Identity Theft Page

State Privacy Office Identity Theft Page

West Virginia Identity Theft Safety Sheet


Washington Identity Theft Resources


Washington Identity Theft

Washington law makes it a crime to possess or use another person’s indentifying or financial information in order to commit, aid or abet any crime.    The law is codified as Wash. Rev. Code § 9.35.020.


Points of Contact

Office of the Attorney General
1125 Washington Street SE
PO Box 40100
Olympia, WA  98504-0100
Phone: (360) 753-6200

Washington Department of Health
101 Israel Road SE
Tumwater, Washington 98501
PO BOX 47890
Olympia, Washington 98504-7890
Phone: (360) 236-4030

Washington Dept. of Licensing
Phone: (866) 658-5758

License Integrity Unit
Department of Licensing
PO Box 9029
Olympia, WA 98507-9029
Phone: 360-902-3915
Fax: 360-570-1246


Other Resources for Identity Theft in Washington

Washington AG Identity Theft and Privacy Page

Washington AG Identity Theft Information Page

Washington DOL Identity Crimes Site

Washington ID Theft Safety Sheet