'Tis the Season for Stealing: Identity Theft

WI Staff | 12/15/2010, 1:20 a.m.

Identity theft in America is hardly new. However, the alarming rise in identity theft in the D.C. metropolitan area over the last five years is worth noting. With technological advances developing at a rate far exceeding the necessary tools to guard personal safety, many District residents are helpless and, hapless in defending their identities from thieves. Thieves have been able to attach "skim" devices to processing machines used by businesses to transfer the data from the magnetic strip on the back of credit and debit cards, in order to obtain consumer card numbers and expiration dates.
As a result, unsuspecting consumers have been in possession of their cards while they are simultaneously being depleted of all funds. Even the diligent consumer, who checks their balances regularly to track any potentially fraudulent activity, can do little to stop the hijacking of their bank account beyond canceling the cards. One District resident recently described her ordeal:
"I literally sat in front of the computer watching in horror as the money evaporated from my bank account. I called the store where the card transactions were being made, I called the Prince George's County Police Department, and I called my bank," the woman said.

"In the end, the police said they could do nothing until a police report was issued in D.C. where I live, and the manager for the store where the theft was taking place, never came to the phone. Finally, my bank cancelled the card. The bank has started an investigating while I am out $900."

She is not alone. Secret Service investigators estimate the metropolitan area has seen a doubling of identity theft fraud cases between 2004 and 2009. Virginia went from 14,765 to 34,652 in five years; Maryland from 11,910 to 27,663; and D.C. from 2,118 to 4,073 during the same time.

During the holiday shopping season especially, area thieves tend to use the credit cards and debit cards of others to purchase gift cards and mostly electronic merchandise to sell to others for a profit. While there may be few measures you can take to totally protect your identity, consider checking your accounts daily to ensure no fraudulent charges are pending; do not share your banking information with anyone; and be cognizant of those around you when transacting business at automated teller machines.

The more diligent you are at recognizing potential fraud, the more likely you are to catch the thief before your accounts are emptied.

'Tis the Season for Stealing: No More Hook-Ups

Among the driving forces behind identity theft, especially during the holiday season is the willingness of otherwise law-abiding citizens to purchase stolen items. The hook-up has consequences far and beyond the immediate theft. According to the Federal Trade Commission, roughly 10 million Americans were victimized by identity theft last year and among them nearly 10 percent of victims identified the thief as a relative.

What is it about getting something for nothing ... or in this case, more for less, that glamorizes being sold items in the barber shop, hair salon, or back of the city bus? Residents have spent years side-stepping folks selling upscale toiletries, baby formula, and batteries from their coat pockets. Others have used these "coat-pocket merchants" for their every shopping need, purchasing hot DVDs, boosted clothing, and even choice cuts of meat.

Be fair warned though that there is no honor among thieves. To receive stolen goods is a crime. To be in receipt of stolen goods is a crime. Purchasing gift cards from someone for a fraction of the price when it is clear they have used someone else's identity to procure those cards, is a crime. Even more telling of late is that many purchasers are finding that the DVDs they bought are blank, the clothes are dry-rotted, the meat is spoiled, and the gift cards are empty.

Forewarned is forearmed. Go to a merchant and get a receipt to avoid victimizing someone else or being the victim of someone else's theft this holiday.