It's a risk you face every day. Simply by carrying your credit card and driver's license, buying lunch with a debit card or making a purchase online, you could be exposing yourself to identity theft -- one of the fastest-growing crimes in the world.
Last year, the U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Forces, one of the main federal agencies fighting cyber-crime, arrested 1,200 criminals who were responsible for the loss of almost $500 million.
That is just a drop in the bucket compared to the $37 billion in identity theft losses in 2010 as reported by Javelin Strategy and Research.
Don't look now, but that is just the beginning of these frightening identity theft facts:
1. Hackers Are Always One Step Ahead.
Online fraudsters are technologically savvy and adept at staying ahead of police. According to Avivah Litan of the technology firm Gartner Group, fewer than one in 700 identity crimes lead to an arrest. That means these criminals are constantly getting away with it.
Threats evolve so quickly that before police even have a handle on old techniques, hackers have moved on to new ones. From dumpster diving to find your old bills to posing as a financial institution needing your personal identity, these thieves are certainly creative.
2. It's Spreading Like Wildfire.
Sophisticated hackers know that their best bet is to hack into credit card and information databases where they can obtain personal information from thousands, which requires very little effort. Even if they don't use that information themselves, hackers can then sell the database information to other thieves.
It happened to Zappos.com earlier this month -- hackers got access to the email addresses, passwords and billing information of 24 million people who have shopped the online shoe store.
Hackers have breached security to get customer data from plenty of other companies and retailers, including: Choicepoint, Lexis Nexis, DSW Shoe Warehouse, TJ Maxx, HSBC and Bank of America.
3. "New Account Fraud" is Growing.
"New Account Fraud" occurs when identity thieves breach databases, steal social security numbers and other financial information, and open new accounts fraudulently under someone else's name. New account fraud is responsible for nearly half of all the total dollars lost to identity theft.
These credit cards are sent to a new address, so the victim has no idea that fraud is taking place unless they check their credit report and see the record of the fraudulent card.
Usually, the victim finds out about new account fraud when the creditor finally seeks long overdue payment. By then, it is too late.
Other types of new account fraud include utility fraud -- where criminals open a phone, gas, electric or cable account in the victim's name -- and loan fraud, where they obtain a loan in the victim's name.
4. It's Getting Harder to Detect.
As you can imagine, new account fraud is difficult to detect unless you are constantly looking at your credit report or have a credit monitoring system in place.
The problem is, the longer fraud goes unnoticed, the more difficult the process is to get resolved. Third parties identify 55% of fraud while 45% are detected by consumers. Often banks and credit card companies detect fraud, but require the cooperation of consumers in order to pinpoint fraudulent transactions and inquiries.
5. It's Not Easy to Erase.
In 2010, the average time it took to resolve an identity theft was 33 hours, up from only 12 hours in 2009. However, it could take a couple of weeks or up to several years to get your finances back into "pre-theft" order.
Unraveling all of the ways you were defrauded can be cumbersome, especially with new account fraud and compromised social security numbers.
Once you think you have dealt with a scam, another could pop up in your name, costing your more time and money to make things right. The prospect can be overwhelming.
There is no silver bullet to prevent identity theft. The Bureau of Consumer Protection, an office of the Federal Trade Commission, offers numerous tips to fight identity theft before it happens and, in the worst case, after the fact.
- Awareness is one of the key weapons. Monitor your personal information by regularly checking your bank account and credit card statements.
- If your identity has been compromised, file a police report immediately. Check your credit report and place a fraud alert with creditors.
- Close any accounts you know or believe to have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
- File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
- Dispute any unauthorized transactions as quickly as possible.
Also, be sure the passwords to your various online accounts, from banking and shopping to email and social networking, are tough to crack. You shouldn't use the same password for all of your accounts. CNET offers solutions for safe, easy-to-remember passwords here.
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The Investing Answer: Identity theft is scary. It can cost time and money to repair your financial reputation after your identity has been compromised. In order to keep your identity safe, it is recommended by professionals to do business with merchants you know have a good reputation, diligently monitor your credit card statements, don't respond to bank or credit card inquiries (most are fraudulent) and -- if you think your information has been compromised -- contact your bank or credit card company immediately.