Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Identity Theft

Magazine article The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

Identity Theft

Article excerpt

A Fast-growing Crime

Criminals have evolved from picking pockets to using more sophisticated methods of theft. Today, thieves can steal personal information and use another person's identity to commit numerous forms of fraud. Identity theft, the criminal act of assuming another person's name, address, social security number, and date of birth in order to commit fraud, affects approximately 350,000 to 500,000 victims annually. [1] Fraud is intentionally deceiving a person or business in order to obtain property or some lawful right. [2] Identity theft differs from other forms of less calculated fraud. For example, a juvenile using someone else's driver's license to purchase alcohol does not constitute identity theft. Although intentional deception exists, using someone else's license to make a purchase does not result in a loss to the victim company.

The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 made identity theft a federal crime and recognized the true victim--the person who had their identity stolen. This act enables law enforcement agencies to investigate identity theft crimes and the associated fraud that often results. [3] In 1997, the Financial Crimes Division of the U.S. Secret Service investigated 9,455 cases of identity theft with losses totaling $745 million. [4] In the past decade, the U.S. Secret Service has observed an increase in financial institution, credit, and computer fraud facilitated by identity theft. [5] One of the three major credit bureaus reported 522,922 consumer inquiries in 1997, with two-thirds of this amount related to identity theft, up from 35,000 in 1992. [6] The amount of identifying information available over the Internet and from an individual's trash and mail as well as the increasingly sophisticated tactics used by criminals has facilitated the increase in identity theft. By examining how identity theft occurs and the steps to resolve it, preventive measures can curb this fast-growing crime.


Identity theft can occur in many ways. Identity thieves scavenge through garbage, steal and redirect mail, use internal access of databases, and surf the Internet searching for personal information. To combat the growing number of identity theft cases, law enforcement officials should know how thieves gather another person's identifying information.

Dumpster Diving

An individual or business that fails to dispose properly of personal identification information, by shredding or mutilating, could find themselves susceptible to a "dumpster diver"--an individual who retrieves discarded material looking for anything of value. Dumpster divers obtain account numbers, addresses, and dates of birth from financial, medical, and personal records--all of which they can use to assume an identity.

One dumpster diver drove around affluent neighborhoods on garbage collection day. [7] He picked up garbage bags left on the curb, took them home, and rummaged through them. The social security numbers and preapproved credit cards he obtained from the garbage, along with using rented mailboxes, cloaked him from his crimes. [8] Businesses that rent mailboxes for short periods of time make tracing a dumpster diver difficult. These companies do not require a lot of information about the renter, which aids the individual in remaining mobile and isolated from the crime. Law enforcement agencies should establish mutual agreements with these businesses to facilitate information gathering. Additionally, police may deter dumpster divers by patrolling residential areas more aggressively on garbage collection days and during the tax season, a prosperous time for dumpster divers. Many taxpayers dispose of old receipts and financial records carelessly. Through town hall meetings, local newsletters, or community bulletins, law enforcement departments can disseminate prevention information on identity theft. By encouraging people to shred documents and by enforcing local trespass ordinances with regard to residential and industrial dump sites, law enforcement agencies can prevent thousands of identity theft cases. …

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