There’s no better way to ask how someone’s identity can be stolen than by asking an identity thief herself.
So that’s exactly what Doug Shadel did. He’s a former fraud investigator and current Senior State Director for AARP in Washington and he has interviewed dozens of convicted identity thieves and scam artists to uncover just what makes them tick and how they go about the business of ripping people off.
Driving around Seattle with "Alice," a convicted ID thief who didn't want her own identity revealed, was an education.
“She knew where all the places where to go ... the easiest cars to break into,” Shadel said.
Driving around a parking lot, Alice pointed out the cars she would likely target.
“Out-of-state plate, so we are probably going to hit that car because it’s parked over in the corner," she said. "It’s easy to get into without somebody seeing."
The out-of-state license plate signaled to Alice that the driver had probably traveled with lots of personal information.
She also pointed out seemingly unlikely targets, like work vans. “They usually had like full on credit cards to bill companies,” she said.
And cars with backpacks that are sitting out in the open. “It’s just full of goodies. It always is.”
In just a few months Alice and her colleagues stole $900,000, Shadel said, noting that "she had a little group."
"One guy who could make IDs. Another who knew how to swipe all the laptops and put them up in the cloud. It was quite a little posse of identity thieves,” Shadel said.
Identity theft affects more than 16 million Americans each year to the tune of $24.7 billion, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is the single largest type of property crime.
“What they are trying to do is use your good credit worthiness for themselves,” Shadel said. “Most of the time what they are doing is taking over your existing accounts and using them to buy stuff for themselves and they either fence it or they sell it."
Almost every week news breaks about large companies such as Staples, Home Depot and Saks Fifth Avenue being hacked for their customer information, leaving millions vulnerable to possible identity theft.
But as the tour with Alice showed Shadel, not every successful thief has to resort to high-tech means. Alice said she brazenly and compulsively hit people’s unlocked mailboxes.
“I would walk up to the house and take mail out of mailboxes,” she said. “I’d walk up like I’m selling something or like I was lost, because I don’t look like a criminal.”
But she was in fact incredibly successful at taking over another person’s identity. “At the time I laughed about it because I was her and she couldn't prove she was her,” she said of one of her victims.
That surreal state of affairs is exactly what happened to Amy Krebs. She wasn't one of Alice's victims, but the identity thief who went after her eventually opened up more than 50 accounts using her information.
“Utilities were very popular. We had heat established at an apartment. We had stores where goods were purchased online,” Krebs said. “Phones were very popular for this criminal to get. Really, there is no threshold for where a criminal with your social security number will go.”
Krebs said she doesn't know how her identity was stolen, but police were able to track down the person who did it in a nearby town. That person eventually pleaded guilty to identity theft, but Krebs is still cleaning up the mess.
“I have yet to pull my credit card reports and not see some fraudulent activity on them,” she said.
She’s also frustrated and angered by the effort involved in clearing her own good name and credit history. “You have to prove to them you are who you say you are to a greater extent than the criminal ever had to.”
The AARP maintains the Fraud Watch Network to help anyone learn more about identity theft and other scams and con games that are out there, and how to protect oneself.
“Put a lock on your mail box," Shadel advised. "Secondly, don’t leave anything in your car that could be used to steal your identity. That includes laptops, that includes wallets, purses, ATM receipts.” He also advised people to change passwords frequently and have passcodes for accessing smartphones and laptops.
Shadel said driving around with Alice and hearing her confessions about how she operated made him change his own behavior.
“I make sure that I have online access to every single credit card, every single bank account, and I have an online relationship with the credit bureaus,” he said. “This is another thing we've learned. They will take over and create their own online access to all of those things if you don’t.”