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The young woman started getting nasty messages on her answering machine from several men. Then a man reached her by phone and said that he was responding to the indecent invitations she had posted on the Internet. But she did not even own a computer. It took her a while to find out that someone had assumed her identity in cyber-space and was posting the ads on the Internet. Not only that, but the shadowy impostor was giving, and even advice on how to bypass her house alarm!

Most of us take our identity for granted. We are who we are, and if challenged, we can prove it. But the items we often use as evidence of our identity-birth certificate, identification number,* driver’s licence, passport, identification cards, and the like-are becoming so easy counterfeit or steal a new crime term has emerged, “identity theft.”

This breed of crime is complex, insidious, and potentially devastating. Victims suddenly discover that someone is running up huge bills, cheating creditors, and causing other havoc in their name. In some lands the law protects the victims from having to play for these charges, but they can end up with a damaged reputation and bad credit.

Law-enforcement agencies, credit-industry insiders, and consumer groups widely acknowledge that identity theft is causing billions of dollars of losses annually. There is no way of knowing exactly how many people are defrauded through identity theft. One of the biggest problems is that months may go by before a person finds out that his identity has been stolen. Some law-enforcement authorities call identity theft the fastest-growing crime in the United States. Similar problems are reported in other countries.

To make things worse, thieves know that identity fraud is difficult to investigate and that it is seldom prosecuted. “To criminals, it’s a faceless crime,” observes Cheryl Smith, a special investigator. “The victim is a bank or department store. They’re not thinking about harming an individual.”

Identity thieves usually steal one or more key pieces of your personal data, such as an identification number or a driver’s license. Then they use it to impersonate you and open up credit accounts in your name. At the same time, they divert the ensuing paper-work to their own mail drop. They spend as much as they can as quickly as they can. You will not know what is happening until the collection agencies start calling.

How do these unscrupulous individuals steal such personal information? It often starts with collecting personal data that many people casually give out on credit applications or to telemarketers. Some crooks resort to “dumpster diving” –digging into your trash cans for bank, mortgage, or credit records. Others intercept financially related mail from mailbox-es. “Shoulder surfers’ are their victims punch in numbers at automated teller machines (ATMs) or public phones. In some countries much personal information is readily available at courts, in public documents, or on the Internet.

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