There are literally thousands of ways a person can have their identity stolen, the most common of which occur on the Internet, according to Covington Police Detective D.J. Seals.
"You don't have to be Internet savvy or even Internet accessible to have your ID stolen over the Internet," Seals said. "I ask people all the time, 'Are you online anywhere?' and they say they aren't so that they think they are safe. That's not necessarily the case."
Almost any bank a person uses today has an online system. Many people are also on an online computer database at their jobs.
"Systems are only as secure as the best hacker," Seals said. "There are people out there who can hack government systems, so they can surely hack your business. It doesn't happen all the time, but it does happen."
Most of the online identify theft that Seals has seen has come not from hackers, but in the form of e-mail scams. Different ploys are used for these rip-offs, but they all end with the victim providing their personal information. Some thieves are bold enough to send an e-mail to telling the person they have been the victim of identity theft and should enter their information so it can be verified.
A similar con pretends to be the person's bank and says they need to verify the victim's information. Seals said watching the address bar on the Internet browser can guard against this one.
"For instance, if it is BBT.org or BBT.com, that's fine. But if it is BBT slash 16 digits .com, it's not them," Seals said. "You can easily get a Web site name that starts with something people know, but it does not end with something people know. It just goes to another page that looks good and people put their information on it. And then you have just given it to them."
Another scam, seen just a few months ago in Covington, revolves around the victim winning the Australian or UK National Lottery. The e-mails said the recipients had won a foreign lottery, but in order to receive their money, they must first provide their personal information.
"You give them the bank account number and the access code and your bank account is empty," Seals said. "And they are probably overseas. They're probably not in Australia, but they are probably overseas. And then your money is gone and it is very, very difficult to trace."
The money can be tracked to the bank it was transferred to overseas, but then police have to get some cooperation from whatever bank or jurisdiction that money went to, which is sometimes difficult.
"I traced one where we found out a group of fake travelers checks left a little town in France," Seals said. "We even know which FedEx truck it came from. But then, I can't get any help. So we transfer a lot of that stuff over to the federal agencies and they help us out a lot."
People can also have their identity stolen just by shopping online. According to Seals, shopping online is never 100 percent safe. Secure sites are safer and can be trusted to a point, but there are no guarantees online.
"If you are going to buy stuff online, don't enter things like checking account numbers," Seals said. "If you are going to buy a lot of stuff online, take a credit card that you don't use normally; one that has very little activity, and use that online. Not a debit card and not a checking account number, but a credit card."
If a credit card number is stolen, the money does not come directly out of a person's account. This can give the victim time to dispute the charges without it affecting his or her credit score.
Wireless Internet has become a growing problem. People with wireless Internet can be vulnerable to ID theft if they are not properly protected. According to Seals, firewalls must be set up on wireless hubs; otherwise a good hacker can actually get onto another person's computer through the system.
Some criminals think verbal contact can be more effective at swindling people. Based on his experience, Seals said phone scams are the second most common way an identity is stolen. This works in a similar way to the e-mail cons, but callers pretend to be a collection agency calling about a late payment. To further heighten the situation, the caller often threatens repossession of valuable items.
"Then they say, 'but here is what we can do; I can take care of this tonight. You just give me a major credit car and we can take care of that.' And people do it," Seals said. "They give it right over the phone. They don't have to have your identity; all they have to have is your credit card number."
Also, people should beware of anybody who calls their houses and says they are with a major institute of some kind but then doesn't seem to have any of information about the people called.
"If you have an account with these folks, they know your address," Seals said. "They know your phone number, your account number and your social security number. They shouldn't ask them."
Legitimate companies might verify a partial address, partial social security number or a code word, but they should never ask for more specific demographic information.
"I do classes on this stuff here in the city and people laugh when I tell them this stuff," Seals said. "They think that it hilarious that anybody can ever fall for that, but it's not necessarily 'falling for it,' it's just that some people are very trusting."