May 30, 2006 -- Identity theft is a problem that is becoming more prevalent and more sophisticated in places like Phoenix, which the federal government says is the worst metropolitan area for identity theft.
Statewide, Arizona ranks at the top, too, according to new data released by a private research firm that says one in six adults has had their identity stolen in the past five years.
The culprit is a combination of the large number of methamphetamine users in the state, and a decision by local government to post a large amount of public records on the Internet, according to Javelin Strategy and Research, the firm that did the new study.
James Van Dyke, president of Javelin, points out that this data from Arizona is not only double the national average, but the form that identity theft is taking in Arizona is getting much more complicated.
"You've got a supply-chain effect going on here. You have a higher than average use of meth and there's a strong correlation between meth usage and ID theft," Van Dyke said.
Such a strong correlation, Van Dyke says, that if you look at where identity theft is happening across the nation, it's in the southwest where meth is also prevalent. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the top five states for identity theft are in Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas and Colorado.
"Meth users will take your bills in the mail and sell your bank statements as a form of payment. Then the [meth-]maker will use those bank statements to go into an existing account or make a new account off that information or sell your statements to an identity theft specialist," Van Dyke said.
Baring All in Divorce
In the past five years identity theft has gone from being non-existent to a problem of epidemic proportions, Detective Tony Morales of the Phoenix Police Department says.
"Every time we find a meth lab we also find identity theft," he said. "These meth freaks like to hang together and they learn about identity theft tricks together."
And those tricks are changing every day, moving away from Dumpster diving and onto the Internet.
Scottsdale and Phoenix, which together with neighboring Mesa are listed by the Federal Trade Commission as the top metropolitan area in the country for identity theft complaints, are located in Maricopa County, a county that puts some very private information on its government Web site.
And that decision could be putting opportunity for identity theft at the fingertips of anyone with an Internet connection.
Those identity theft "specialists" or "meth freaks" are tapping into your identity through a new technique on the Internet: a government site listing public records, like divorce documents.
Maricopa Mei Culpa
When you call the Maricopa Recorder's Office, the automated answering service refers you to the Internet for more information -- and that's exactly what you can get, more information.
Maricopa County has been posting public records on the Internet for the past decade. With Arizona's housing boom, Maricopa County recorder Helen Purcell says people were filing up to 10,000 documents a day.
"So we decided to make a business decision: We decided to reveal everything on a public record and put it online, out of convenience," said Purcell. But that availability to online records is also making it convenient for the identity thief.
"Public records absolutely contributes to this problem. There's no doubt in my mind that the people who are doing identity theft are using computers and at least some of that has to do with public records," said Detective Morales.
New legislation will take effect in Arizona by January 2007 to make sure filers don't reveal all their information. Any one who includes more than the last five digits of their social security number, bank or credit card information will be fined by the county or the attorney general's office, and the fine could be as high as $500.
Some of the documents people file include personal information, prime for the taking -- particularly divorce decrees and tax liens.
"Anything we can do to help limit access to all the information on these public records will help. Even if it just stops one person a year from getting their identity stolen then it will be significant because identity theft can ruin your life," added Morales.
Other States Taking Action
Hundreds of people have experienced such ruin in their own lives. In Ohio, people using the Hamilton County Web site got their identities stolen as well as $500,000. "They [identity thieves] were mining our site, looking, perusing the public documents and finding traffic tickets and other records which had social security numbers attached to somebody's name and address," said Greg Hartman, Hamilton County Clerk of Court.
Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, has responded to the issue by restricting online access to documents.
Starting June 1, in Michigan, officials in Ingham County, which includes Lansing, are removing all relevant documents from their official Web site. "Just to make sure and give a little extra protection for people," said Paula Johnson, Ingham County Register of Deeds.
Florida is also trying to keep details listed on divorce records and other public records more confidential. In 2007, Florida is making it mandatory that Social Security and banking numbers are removed from online records.
Who Is Most at Risk?
Van Dyke still says the biggest threat to consumers is a paper trail, not the Internet.
"They should be more worried about documents going through the mail. We found in our research that only 9 percent of identity theft can be traced to Internet use and billing," he said. "If you follow normal precautions on the Internet you are actually better off than using mail."
According to Javelin's research, those most likely to fall victim to identity fraud are Hispanics and African Americans aged 25-34 with a 56 percent higher chance than other consumers. These two ethnicities account for $20 billion 35 percent, or, of annual identity fraud losses.
Javelin's research shows that those most likely to be victimized (households earning more than $150,000) actually incurred the least losses, at $4,376 per victim, representing just 6 percent the total annual losses.
Van Dyke says this is because the highest earning households take precautions to protect their assets.
Van Dyke recommends that you do four things to help prevent identity theft.Stop all your financial paper statements. Monitor your bank and credit card accounts at least twice a week. Get a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus: www.annualcreditreport.com. Finally, take this online quiz: www.idsafety.net.
Dean Reynolds contributed to this report.