Identity theft: Maine's most popular crime
How much do you value your personal identity? Would it comfort you to know that at this very moment your name, birth date and Social Security number could be sold for $25?
Identity theft claims millions of victims each year and it is our nation's fastest growing crime.
“Nobody has been able to really quantify what the cost of identity theft is every year to the American economy and the world wide economy, but it’s in the billions of dollars,” said Jane Carpenter, an identity theft specialist from Boothbay.
For seven years, Carpenter worked at Maine Attorney General's Office Consumer Protection Division helping victims of identity theft. In July, she retired from her job to launch Maine Identity Services, LLC a Web-based company and the first of its type in Maine dedicated to assisting identity theft victims, educating the public, and training police departments across the state.
In 2011, identity theft ranked as the most frequently committed crime in Maine, with 1 out of 5 people becoming a victim every year, according to the Maine Crime Victimization Report conducted by the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.
Among the most alarming statistics of the victimization report was all the identity theft incidents occurred in the past 12 months of when the survey was conducted, and out of all the respondents surveyed, only 40 percent of the victims actually reported the crime to police.
“What's worrying is the number of identity thefts is certainly greater than what is reported because a lot people are reluctant to report it,” Carpenter said.
What is identity theft?
Identity theft is defined as someone fraudulently using a person's private identifying information to obtain money, goods or services. According to Carpenter, the crime shows up in many forms.
While 60 percent of identity theft is attributed to stolen credit cards and online hacking, the crime has become more pervasive, especially at a personal level.
According to TransUnion credit bureau, one study reported that 32 percent of identity theft involves a close family member or relative.
“Some people have discovered that they have a criminal record as result of a sibling,” Carpenter said. A sibling, or relative would know your date of birth, and probably knows your social security number, and maybe even knows your mother's maiden name.”
Criminal identity theft involves use of the victim’s information which results in a false criminal record such as a drunk driver falsely claiming they're somebody else.
Identity theft also includes fraudulent income tax filings and falsifying medical records, and perpetrators often use personal information stolen from children's records or the deceased.
One of the major engines driving identity theft Carpenter said is technology has become so widespread, people's personal information is constantly at a greater risk of being stolen.
“There are billions of devices in the world now that can send information around the world literally at the speed of light, so it makes the transmission, and the buying and the selling of information, within reach of criminals,” Carpenter said.
With more people banking, shopping, paying student loans and submitting job applications online, social security numbers and credit cards numbers are being stored in vast databases that are frequently targeted by computer hackers.
“Identities are sold from anywhere between $3 to $25,” Carpenter said. “ In the back-rooms of the Internet buying and selling of identities is usually pretty cheap. It's a totally global phenomenon.”
Senior citizens surprisingly are less likely to have their identities stolen than younger people, because seniors typically spend less time using computers, Carpenter said. The most common age group for identity theft victims is between 18-49.
“I think the key to trying to control identity theft for an individual is just trying to keep a lid on just how much identifying information you put out into the world,” Carpenter said.
The good news
There is hope for victims of identity theft at both the federal and state level. In Maine, Carpenter helped initiate two laws in 2007 aimed to protect and assist victims. LD 2220 requires police to take a report and establishes the location of the crime, and LD 1179 helps victims wrongfully accused of a criminal identity theft to obtain a declaration of innocence from the court.
At the federal level the FTC has the authority to mandate creditors to “red flag” suspicious activity detected on credit card accounts. Federal laws also allow consumers to put a “freeze” on their credit reports.
But with crimes becoming increasingly more complex, there will always be new forms of identity theft, Carpenter said. However, new laws have provided people with the proper resources, and have prevented many injustices that have ruined innocent people's lives in the past.
Carpenter's company mission is to help people who have been targeted by identity theft, and to help police better respond to victims.
Her website, www.meidhelp.com, launched in August, and her business urges anyone who wants information or thinks they have been a victim of identity theft to contact Maine Identity Services, LLC by sending an email to email@example.com or calling toll free 1-855-463-4343