Identity Theft – What is the Real Story?

Identity theft can be characterized as a major scourge in society today. It has become a  growing danger, and as such it  currently is often labeled cybercrime and/or cyber espionage, with this fraud on the public becoming so pernicious that even major nationwide firms such as Target, eBay and Home-Depot; as well as financial giants such as JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Etrade have been hacked; regardless of the size of the business, there are many others that have been invaded but not yet discovered by their respective IT mavens, causing total havoc to millions of people all over California, the United States and even international destinations. This is the theft and use of an individual’s name, personal information, social security number, credit card and bank number, or illegally using any one, two or more of these pieces of extremely private and personal items, social information and/or data.

Were you aware there are cell phone tracking devices that also allow data to be collected? Stingray is a product of the Harris Corporation, which has annual revenues of approximately $5 billion dollars with about 14,000 employees and claim they not only serve government, but commercial businesses in over 125 countries. The Stingray and similar products track the whereabouts of cell phones, but can also be used to spy and eavesdrop on telephone calls as well as text messages. While there clearly are legitimate interests served, we are on the threshold of a new era in technological advances that unfortunately impact the meaning and purpose of the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. At the time of writing this Blog, Israel has announced it is taking measures to become a cyberwar superpower. Their program is being launched in high school with a national goal of creating cyberwarriors in their pursuit of cybersecurity.

Often the unsuspecting public responds to a telephone call, an email or text in which the person sending it is located in a foreign country but that is not necessary and even if so, it may not be obvious or apparent. These criminals perpetrate their fraud by gaming the unsuspecting public. In some cases, the thief elicits private information on the pretense they are going to provide a free cruise or gift; at other times, they claim to offer a refund; in some cases they might report your account as having been hacked (by someone else) and they want to confirm you are the true owner in order to correct the crime and, therefore, under the pretense of good will ask to verify your personal and private information, only to commit identify theft. When they use correspondence more frequently than not, they duplicate logos and other official looking names (for example, they may use what appears to be an authentic bank email, but change a letter, number and/or use a different web mail system). In addition, by steering you to links and attachments to emails to what may appear to be safe invitations, secure and legitimate websites, they instead are able to hack your computer, cell phone, laptop and/or tablet, which thereby causes problems that can be insurmountable. Your electronic device then is mined without you knowing for otherwise private and seemingly protected data. The hackers have the ability to seize your computer, mobile device,  laptop and cell phone,  and if they choose lock it so you cannot operate your device. Then, they have the ability to literally take over and steal all of your banking information, photos and images, and otherwise have access to everything you choose to maintain on such devices, becoming an open book to your entire private and social life.

With stolen information, an unscrupulous thief using your personal data can and will often apply for a tax refund, and then in filing a tax return request the refund be sent to a different address. It appears at the present time the IRS in its effort to get a refund processed quickly does not possess and/or utilize software to first perform adequate and complete cross checks to prevent this from happening. By the time it is caught, the thief has found other sets of private information for countless other individuals and uses it to obtain multiple refunds again and again sent to different addresses as well. Your identity and social security number can be used unlawfully to obtain unemployment benefits, file insurance claims, and nearly every other illegal enterprise they think they can master and, therefore, you have become a victim of identity theft.

If you believe you will not be exploited by using digital communications (perhaps even without identity theft taking place), ask yourself if you or anyone you know has included a particular subject in an email, text or correspondence only to find in minutes there is an advertisement involving the same subject matter that pops up on your screen. This is how the search engines gather data to finance their operations as they sell leads to advertisers.  Sadly, the more information on one’s social media pages and ease with which it is mined also serves to enhance the criminal’s credibility by supporting the otherwise protected identity that is stolen.

Perhaps knowing the above may prevent identity theft if you choose to not open an email, text message or respond to a call if it is, or you have reason to believe, even remotely suspicious. Some choose to select the incognito setting so when they navigate the internet their searches are ostensibly private. However, that is inaccurate since  your search is not concealed from the websites you navigate for information, nor the internet service provider you use, and can still be accessed by your employer.

The Federal Government National Security Agency (NSA) forbids the reporting the very fact the government has made a request and the release of personal information they seek, for example,  from the internet  search engines and social media sites. The Government has for many years accessed internet communications and telephone records on the grounds it is necessary for the safety of the public in their efforts to identify and catch those that engage in criminal activity and/or terrorists. More recent in their endeavors have been the required production of emails, video chats, texts, and pictures to name a few of the data streams they continue to request. However,  several of the major entities recently were able to reach a settlement allowing them to disclose to the public limited information they provide to the government every six months. On October 7th, Twitter filed a lawsuit against the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice arguing on the basis of the First Amendment to the Constitution and freedom of speech that Twitter should not be barred from full disclosure to the public of the surveillance being done by the government.

There are a few steps you can take if you are a victim of identity theft. First and foremost, be extremely cautious before opening any email, text or communication unless you are certain from whom it came, being totally adverse to opening attachments unless you are 100% confident they are safe and secure. You can purchase software programs that are designed to prevent malicious software from taking over your computer; it will alert as to whether the internet site you wish to navigate and explore is safe and secure, or dangerous. But, these safeguards afford no 100% guarantee.

If you are a victim of cybercrime, identity theft or cyber espionage, contact law enforcement to report the crime and get a copy of the incident report that is created after you filed the report as this will be your hard evidence to corroborate a future claim (if that is any consolation). Second, you should report this to the three major credit reporting bureaus. Then, contact the various creditors who have issued credit cards to you, talk to their fraud department to cancel your existing cards and have new ones issued. It is also recommended you change all of your user names and passwords on your electronic devices and accounts. Some advocates believe this should be a regular project you do as well to hopefully prevent identity theft.