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Getting to Know Identity Thieves

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By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, November 1, 2007

No doubt many of us have heard enough about identity theft to know that we have to protect our private information.

Hopefully, you're savvy enough to recognize bogus e-mails -- the ones that seem to come from your bank, an online auction site or a foreign lottery official announcing you've won a large cash prize. They are, you must know, just attempts to steal personal information.

But the Internet isn't the only method identity thieves use. A new survey reiterates that crooks out to steal your personal data are just as likely to get it by old-fashioned ways.

Only about half of the cases of identity theft involve the World Wide Web or technological devices (credit card encoders, for example), according to the Center for Identity Management and Information Protection.

Non-technological means are used in the other attempts to steal someone's identity. The criminal might simply redirect your mail by filling out a change of address card at the post office. Or he -- it's most likely a male -- will make off with your mail from your mailbox or go through your trash to find discarded documents that contain information he can use to open up credit card accounts. In 20 percent of the non-technological cases in the study, theft of mail, a change of address card or dumpster diving was the method of theft.

The center, with a grant from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, reviewed 517 closed Secret Service cases from 2000 to 2006. I should note that the data used for the report do not represent all of the identity theft cases that were investigated and prosecuted during this time by the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies.

But at least there's more research being done in this area. The center, which was founded last year and operates from Utica College in New York, was created to conduct research on identity theft and fraud. In addition to Utica, its partners are LexisNexis, IBM, the credit bureau TransUnion, the Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Carnegie Mellon University, Indiana University and Syracuse University.

This is the first time the Secret Service has allowed the review of its closed case files on identity theft and fraud. The Secret Service is the primary federal agency tasked with investigating identity theft and fraud and related activities.

"These findings shed new light on how identity-theft-related crimes take place, what motivates the perpetrators and who is being victimized, and dispel some common myths about identity theft," said Gary Gordon, founder and executive director of the center.

The research center divided its finding into three categories: the crime, the victims and the offenders.

I want to start with the offenders because the more you know about the criminal trying to steal your personal information, perhaps the better you can protect yourself.

Identity thieves are young. In 42.5 percent of cases, the offenders were 25 to 34, and 18.5 percent were 18 to 24. Only 6 percent were older than 50.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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