> The Creepy Crime of Identity TheftAmy Singer, Ph.D.
> The Creepy Crime of Identity Theft
> Susan Cheever
> January 29, 2003
> Identity theft is as old as the Old Testament story of Jacob, who
> tricked his aging father into giving him a blessing meant for his
> brother Esau. Esau was hairy, and Jacob was smooth, so Esau believed
> his father could not confuse them. By wearing hairy goatskins, Jacob
> was able to fool their father, assume his brother's identity and get
> the blessing.
> These days we have 10- digit numbers and invisible holographs to
> keep people from taking our identities. We have secret passwords,
> our mother's maiden name and protective software. It all works about
> as well as Esau's hairiness did. In the United States, identity
> theft almost doubled last year, according to a Federal Trade
> Commission report released last week, and occurs most commonly
> through credit card theft or on the Internet. New York is one of the
> states hardest hit, ranking in the top 10.
> In our fast-moving world, where few people have the time to look
> beyond the surface, it is criminally easy to pretend to be someone
> else. In the movie "Catch Me If You Can," Leonardo DiCaprio plays
> Frank Abagnale Jr., who posed as a Pan American pilot, a district
> attorney and a doctor supervising surgery - all during the same
> year. The movie shows that identity is easy to fake: A recognizable
> uniform, a few key words and a winning smile will do it.
> The audience whooped with delight as DiCaprio charmed bank officials
> into cashing checks he created in a bathtub. I wondered if they
> would they have been as thrilled if the talented Mr. Abagnale had
> turned his skills in their direction? It's a common experience these
> days. Someone wielding my credit card bought $1,500 worth of machine
> parts at a garage in Wisconsin. Someone else charged hundreds of
> dollars worth of calls to somewhere in Indonesia on my phone bill. A
> friend found that a forged version of her credit card had paid for a
> $4,000 party in a small Greek hotel.
> In real life, identity theft can be a nightmare. Some victims spend
> thousands of dollars and take months of time before they are able to
> unsnarl the tangle of phony addresses and bad debts left by the
> false versions of themselves. Victims have been denied loans for
> housing and education, found themselves liable for accidents
> involving cars they didn't buy and have never seen, and even lost
> job opportunities.
> Furthermore, there's something creepy about identity theft,
> something about a thief pretending to be me, that violates more than
> my legal and civil rights. Esau was so outraged at having his
> identity stolen that he planned to murder Jacob as soon as their
> father died.
> Identity is more fragile than we like to think; we all change all
> the time. What gives me identity anyway? My smoothness? My Social
> Security number? My name? My job? I feel different in a new dress or
> when someone calls me by a childhood nickname. In a different city,
> in a different house, making a living in a different profession,
> would I be the same person? The nugget of character we call the soul
> would not change, perhaps, but my behavior would probably change, my
> circumstances would certainly change and the way I see the world
> would change.
> Even during the months when I teach each year, I notice a change - I
> come to expect the response I get from my students. When I get home,
> I'm surprised that people don't laugh at my jokes and that their
> attention seems to wander when I'm lecturing them.
> Identity thieves have dozens of different methods. They acquire your
> credit card number and manufacture a bogus card. Or, using your
> Social Security number, they open a charge account in your name at a
> different address; by the time you know what's happened, bills have
> been piling up for months. They pose as a landlord or employer and
> get access to your credit report. Thieves go through the garbage -
> this is called "Dumpster diving" - to get the information they need
> or pay clerks to "skim" your credit card number when you use it in a
> store. Sometimes they open a bank account in your name or file for
> bankruptcy under your name to avoid paying the debts they amassed.
> If we want to stop identity theft, we need to see it as a serious
> crime, not a source of amusement. To protect yourself, the Federal
> Trade Commission suggests checking your credit report every year,
> guarding mail and trash from theft, giving out your Social Security
> number rarely - and only if absolutely necessary - and remembering
> that the information on your personal computer may not be private.
> And, of course, watch out for people wearing goatskins.
> Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.
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