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Identity theft: The nation's silent crime

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Identity thieves target mail boxes for information, including W-2s at tax time
Hugo van Tilborg/flickr Creative Commons
Identity thieves target mail boxes for information, including W-2s at tax time

Identity theft is on the rise; experts say consumers are to blame for helping criminals steal data

It's the crime that claims more than a million new victims in the United States every 30 days. Identity theft. That's more than the total number of people affected by burglaries, shoplifting, auto thefts, purse snatchings and check fraud all combined. 

"Our world is awash with unprotected data" says Neal O'Farrell, cyber-crime expert and founder of the Identity Theft Council, a California based victim support network.

Credit cards, local libraries, doctors' offices and personal computers are just some of the sources of information leaks, but O'Farrell warns the main culprit is a little more low-tech.

"The mail is one of the greatest sources of free information for identity thieves. It's like free cash on the curb."  

Identity thieves outline just how easy it is for them to steal your details in an upcoming documentary, from the Identity Theft Council called  "In the Company of Thieves"

Tax season is a particularly fruitful time for identity criminals. 

"Look out for your W-2s and 10-99s" says Neal O'Farrell. "Everything a thief needs to know is on them."

Unlike a break in, identity theft can go unnoticed for months. Victims only become aware when they receive a bill for an item they never purchased, or are unexpectedly turned down for credit.

"Check your credit reports regularly" advises O'Farrell. "While you can't stop the fraud, you can slow down its impact with early detection."

Social media is also pegged as a goldmine for identity thieves, especially those looking to swipe the details of young children. Keep the little people offline, warns Neal O'Farrell.

"Parents want to brag about their children, but the more information you  put out there with details of their name,  date and place of birth, siblings, family members and so on,  the easier it is for criminals to steal their identity. I've heard of kids being declared bankrupt at three. Their financial futures are ruined before they've even begun."

So how can you protect your identity?

"Layers of security are key" says O'Farrell. "Install anti-virus protection on all of your devises. Don't respond to phishing emails. Lock your mailbox. Be careful who you share your information with."

And if you're a victim?

"Get a brown paper bag and breathe" jokes O'Farrell. "Once you've calmed down, file a police report, get to the bottom of just how deep the crime is and remember consumer law is on your side. "

You can also read  previous installments of the series on the impact of cyber crime on small business, on how a credit union is dealing with security and a company that hunts down hackers

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