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Identity Theft and Spyware- The New Threat

Index: Topics Covered


What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is the wrongful taking of someone else’s “real world’ identity for the purpose of committing fraud. Typically the thief gets their hands on enough information to pretend to be someone else. The thief may open up fraudulent credit card accounts, apply for loans, or try to secure other property using the stolen identity. Some may even go as far as using your name to land a job and stick you with the taxes from the I.R.S. Perhaps the scariest aspect is that you could actually be arrested for a crime that someone else committed while using your identity.

The Federal Trade Commission released a survey in September of 2003 showing that 27.3 million Americans have been victims of identity theft in the last five years, including 9.9 million people in the last year alone. That equates to approximately 4.6% of the U.S. population! According to the FTC survey, 2002 identity theft losses to businesses and financial institutions totaled nearly $48 billion and consumer victims reported $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses. This is a growing problem.

Real World Scenario

We talked to a victim of identify theft to get a first hand look at what happens when identify theft strikes. For purposes of anonymity we will refer to our interviewee as Kim Smith. Kim explains that a few years ago she and her spouse applied for a mortgage on a home the planned to use as a summer vacation property. The house was modestly priced and the Smith’s didn’t foresee any problems getting the mortgage. They had stellar credit, good paying jobs, plenty of money in the bank and the amount of the mortgage was relatively small. They were told by their banker that getting their mortgage should be easy but at closing time they ran into major problems.

“It was scary and embarrassing”, said Kim, “We went to close on the home when the mortgage officer asked if us if we had any outstanding loans or credit card payments. To the best of our knowledge we didn’t have a single outstanding balance. We always paid our bills on time and we had no credit card debt.”

The mortgage officer then began asking Kim about various credit card accounts that had outstanding balances, an account at a hunting supply store and many other miscellaneous accounts. The balances ranged from a few hundred dollars to several thousand on major credit cards.

“This thief had real gall. He actually applied for the credit cards using the name Kimball, a derivation of my own first name. To add insult to injury he actually paid the minimum balance of some of the accounts for a couple of months. At first this made the investigators skeptical, after all why would a thief pay anything on the balance?”

Fortunately the story has a happy ending. The Smith’s did manage to get their mortgage and immediately contacted authorities after learning of the identity fraud. The individual who had stolen her identity was later apprehended and received a prison term. According to authorities she was only one of more then a dozen identities they had assumed in order to open up fraudulent credit card accounts.

“It has certainly caused us a lot of time, effort and money to track down this thief and cleaning up our credit report has taken years. The most frightening thing about the incident was that it was going on for months and we had no idea. It made me feel violated.” According to the FTC it cost the average victim more than $1,000 to cope with the damage from identity theft.

Identity Theft and Spyware

Obviously one of the latest and most dangerous threats to privacy in the digital age lies at the doorstep of spyware. Spyware can be used to surreptitiously gather all types of confidential information and in most cases the user has no idea the information is being taken. This form of “snoopware” lets the spy access everything you do online including usernames, passwords, online shopping purchases and e-mail or chat correspondence. In the hands of an identity thief this type of information is a deadly treasure trove.

Many of today’s most popular spyware applications promise the ability to execute via “remote installation”. Remote installation is the ability to put a spyware program on a computer without having physical access to the machine. Obviously this is crossing a thin line into illegal behavior and this type of software should be classified as a Trojan horse. Nevertheless, these programs are sold every day to consumers who want to monitor their kids, employees, or spouse and perhaps to people that have more nefarious purposes in mind. While there are certainly legitimate uses for monitoring software we find it hard to believe there is any legitimate scenario where a parent or employer would need to use remote installation to install a monitoring program. Make no mistake that spyware can certainly be used to illegally obtain your personal information

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