What Is Identity Theft – A Guide for Beginners

what is identity theftDespite identity theft being common, many people aren’t aware of what the phrase means. To protect yourself from identity theft, it is important to understand what it is. In this post, I will try to clearly answer “What is identity theft?”

Identity Theft Definition

The FTC defines identity theft as “when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.”

IdentityTheft.org.uk defines identity theft as when criminals “find out your personal details and use them to open bank accounts and get credit cards, loans, state benefits and documents such as passports and driving licenses in your name.”

You can see from both definitions that the three key elements of identity theft are when someone uses your personal information :

  • To commit a crime
  • By assuming your identity.

How Does Identity Theft Happen?

There are many ways that identity thieves can steal your personal information.

  • Wallet Stealing
  • Dumpster Diving – They can steal your personal details from your rubbish.
  • Phishing – They create a website that impersonates a real website (like a bank) so you unwittingly give them your details.
  • P2P File Sharing – Some peer-to-peer file sharing programs automatically share all the files on your computer by default, unwilling exposing your details to identity thieves.
  • Malware and Spyware – If your computer is compromised by an identity thief, they will be able to access all the information stored your computer and record anything you do on your computer.
  • Shoulder Surfing – They listen in or peak over you while you’re giving out secret information, like your PIN at an ATM.
  • Database Leaks – Criminals can hack into corporate or government databases, gaining the personal and financial information of thousands of people at once.
  • And Many Other Ways!

Once identity thieves have your details, they can then use that information to commit fraud or assume your identity for their personal gain.

Examples of Identity Theft

Here are a few examples of identity theft, both on a small and large scale.

One of the biggest identity theft cases ever happened in 2008. Eleven people hacked the wireless networks of nine major retailers, including Office Max, Barnes and Noble, and Forever 21. They then installed spyware on the retailers’ networks to capture credit and debit card details. Before they were caught, they stole and sold the information for over 41 million credit and debit cards.

In another case, Linda Foley was a victim of identity theft by, of all people, her employer, Beri Nessel. Nessel Used Foley’s information to obtain a cell phone in Linda’s name and to apply for several credit cards. Nessel was able to use the cell phone and credit cards for five months before Foley became aware of what had happened. Due to Foley working closely with local law enforcement, Nessel was successfully prosecuted for identity theft. You can read more about her story here.

Finally in the last case, Michelle Brown was a victim of identity theft for over one and a half years. Amongst other things, the thief used her identity to buy a truck, to get a drivers license, and to rent an apartment. The identity thief even used Brown’s identity to smuggle 3,000 pounds of marijuana. You can read more about her story here.

Protecting Yourself

While it is possible to have your identity stolen due to no fault of your own, there are things you can do to reduce the possibility of it happening to you:

  • Guard Your Personal Details – Make sure to keep your personal details private, and be wary of who you give your personal details to.
  • Routinely Check for Suspicious Activity – You should regularly check your bank statements for suspicious activity.
  • Buy Identity Theft Protection and Insurance – With the rise of identity theft, many commercial companies now provide protection and insurance. This is particularly helpful if you’re already a victim and are concerned about being targeted again, or if you have a vulnerable family member that is a potential target for thieves.  You can learn about one of the top identity theft protection program victim of identity theft, it is important that you report it as soon as possible to the police, the three credit bureaus, and the FTC, along with any other relevant authorities.


So what is identity theft? It is when someone uses your confidential information to commit a crime.

Identity theft is becoming increasingly common. It is important to understand what identity theft is, how it happens, and how to protect yourself. If not, you may become a victim yourself.

Chris H.



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