Not a Rare Occurrence
If you think identity theft won't happen to you, think again. A 2006 Gartner Research study showed that about 15 million Americans were identity theft victims.
"Information is the new currency; it has tremendous value," says Bruce Townsend, assistant deputy director at the U.S. Secret Service, the federal agency that investigates financial crimes, including identity theft. "There are people who pay thousands of dollars for this type of information."
The key to a successful identity theft is obtaining multiple forms of information from the same person. Hence, identity theft tends to show up in the buying, selling or maintaining a car because of the multiple forms of identification required to complete the process. Some of the most common scenarios involve car dealerships, while other situations involve individuals selling a vehicle in a private party sale. Some situations involve identifying information being stolen from a vehicle itself, when left in someone else's possession, such as a mechanic or a valet.
In one case in Florida, a salesman at a Chrysler dealer and his friend were arrested for using a customer's identifying information to get credit cards, purchase cell phones and to buy a new Mercedes-Benz in another state. The customer's information was stolen from his driver license and the car loan credit application he completed when he purchased a car at that dealership.
At a Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Montana, a salesman admitted to stealing identifying information from a customer's credit report. The salesman had called American Express and got a card issued in his own name. He was caught, but not before ringing up over $6,000 in merchandise. This, however, was not the first time the salesman had committed identity theft. When he was caught, authorities learned that he was also wanted for a similar case in Texas where he had obtained credit cards and fraudulently charged over $100,000 while living in that state.
Other opportunities for ID theft around the car range from having your wallet stolen from your vehicle or even being snookered at the gas station.
In one case in California, a crime ring installed skimming devices in the card readers at gas pumps. When a customer used a credit card at the pump, an error message instructed the person to go inside to the cashier. While it appeared the card reader wasn't working, it was actually capturing personal information from every customer.
Once credit card data is obtained, identity thieves work to match it with other identifying data. This can include stealing your mail or your wallet, going through your trash at your home or work or scamming you over the telephone.
"Using this method, many people will get one piece of information stolen, like a credit card, but only a small number of those people will become victims of identity theft because the thieves are able to obtain some other information on them," explains Walsh.