By Dalton Karwacki
Imagine anyone in the world being able to find out your name, date of birth or where you live. Imagine opening your credit card bill and finding transactions you never made. Imagine losing your identity, however temporarily. Identity theft, its forms, and ways to prevent it were the focus of a panel held in the Bart Luedeke Center on Wednesday.
The panel included Jim Scott, an assistant prosecutor at the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office; Jim Manahan, a Rider graduate and lawyer; Dr. Lorinda Harmon, from Temple University; Kevin Long from Bank of America; and Robert Lackie, professor and librarian at Rider.
According to a packet distributed at the event, “identity theft occurs when someone’s personal information is stolen for the purpose of impersonating that person. Identity fraud is when criminals ‘obtain a victim’s sensitive personal information’ for the purpose of making unauthorized purchases, taking money from bank accounts or opening new lines of credit with the stolen information.” Identity fraud is the more common of the two, though the term “identity theft” is often used in reference to both.
Scott opened the panel by explaining the ways in which identity thieves work.
“The most important piece of information you have is your Social Security number,” Scott said. “That is considered to be gold by identity thieves.”
He explained that this is because this number is used in secure transactions, such as banking and medical treatment.
If Social Security numbers are gold, then the silver information would be bank account and credit card numbers. One of the best ways to protect this information is to shred documents containing any personal account numbers before tossing them out, Scott said.
“In your garbage [are] all kinds of things that may have your personal identifying information,” Scott said. “Particularly bills and offers for new credit cards.”
He finished up by explaining the threats of phishing and skimming operations.
“A phishing operation is when [thieves] send you an e-mail, which will often look like a completely legitimate message from a bank or credit card company,” he said.
These e-mails will usually come complete with company logos and “signatures” of executives and will ask for personal information in order to “help serve the customer.”
Skimming operations utilize devices that can read all of the information off of a card by simply passing the card within range of the device, in a method similar to the way EZ-Pass systems work. According to Scott, one of the most common places for skimming operations is at ATMs.
The skimming device is placed in an inconspicuous place to record the card number and name on the card, while a small hidden camera records the PIN when it is typed in. The best way to guard against this is to try to use ATMs in banks, as they are watched more closely, and to cover the pin pad while typing in the PIN.
Manahan discussed what to do if you are victimized by identity theft. The first step, he said, is to go to law enforcement. This is important, as most banks will be unwilling to look into a case of theft unless a criminal report is filed. After this, all relevant banks and creditors should be alerted so that holds and warnings can be placed on the affected accounts.
The next part of the panel focused on medical identity theft and was led by Harmon.
“Medical identity theft is relatively easy to do,” Harmon said. “It’s very difficult to detect and is even more difficult to fix.”
Medical theft occurs when a person takes the victim’s insurance number or other insurance information and pretends that he or she is the victim in order to receive health care. This is costly, as it increases insurance rates, and can be dangerous in extreme cases. Harmon said that if a person receives an appendectomy with someone else’s insurance, then doctors may discount the possibility that the victim needs one later, as their information will show that he or she has already received the operation.
The best way to protect against medical identity theft, Harmon said, is to keep private information like insurance numbers secret.
Hill then spoke about some of the protections that many banks offer to help protect against identity theft. One is to use a virtual credit card number for online purchases. A virtual credit card number is a randomly generated number which is tied to an actual credit card. This is useful, as nobody ever sees the buyer’s real credit card number. The virtual number is then rendered void after one use, preventing an identity thief from utilizing it.
“One of the best ways to protect yourself is with online banking,” Hill said. “People are still nervous about online banking, but it really is more secure.”
He explained that since there are no physical bills or invoices, there is nothing for potential identity thieves to find and take information from.
The panel finished with Lackie advising how to protect against identity theft online. He demonstrated several search engines, such as www.privateeye.com, which exist solely to search for information about individuals. These Web sites can find public records, as well as information posted to Facebook pages and similar Web sites. They return information that can very easily be used by identity thieves. He urged people to be careful with what information they post on the Internet, as it instantly becomes readily accessible.