Do You Know Where Your Identity Is?
The February issue of Popular Mechanics featured as its cover story a piece I was commissioned to write about the role of technology in identity theft and online fraud entitled, "It's 10 P.M: Do You Know Where Your Identity Is?" I would have linked to it sooner, but the magazine only published it on their site a few days ago. The folks at Popular Mechanics were a fun bunch to work with -- very professional and thorough.
The story looks at the variety of ways technology is making it easier for criminals to commit identity fraud and identity theft. Here's a snippet:
"Many police departments just can't keep up. "The sheer amount of fraud that comes in is overwhelming," says Anthony Reyes, a detective with the New York Police Department's Computer Investigation and Technology Unit. "In a lot of smaller police departments, the cop with the AOL account becomes the designated tech guy."
The piece I submitted to the editors included a bit about a Florida woman I interviewed who was the victim of identity theft. Her tale was ultimately cut from the story before publication, probably for space reasons and because it wasn't really technology-related. At any rate, her saga is a compelling and probably all-too-common one, and I thought it would be a shame were it never told, so here it is:
Not all identity theft involves financial losses: According to the FTC, the most common non-financial form of fraud takes place when the thief uses the victim's name and identifying information when caught committing a crime or otherwise stopped by law enforcement officials.
Beth Givens, director of the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said this type of fraud -- known as "criminal identity theft" -- frequently is committed by someone the victim knows.
"Often times criminal ID theft is committed by a former roommate or the 'black sheep' in the family," Givens said.
In most cases, criminal ID theft happens when the perpetrator is arrested for a crime but does not have any identification on them at the time and instead provides someone else's credentials. When the imposter dodges a future court date, the judge in the case issues an arrest warrant for the person whose identity information the perpetrator used.
"Then the next time the good guy gets stopped for speeding, the cops cuff him and haul him off to jail in the back of a squad car," Givens said. "These kinds of cases can be life-destroying. We've talked to innocent people who have spent days and weeks in jail for this kind of thing."
Nadine Nicolas, a 35-year-old security guard for a gated community in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., woke up one morning in April 2005 to the sound of a policeman pounding on her front door and armed with a warrant for her arrest: She was wanted for a misdemeanor and three felony charges stemming from check fraud and counterfeiting. Nicolas explained that she had recently lost her drivers' license and that someone must have stolen her identity.
Nevertheless, Nicolas was arrested, brought to the station house, fingerprinted and then spent the night in jail. The crimes of which she was accused were committed in another area several counties away in northern Florida, in places she told police she had never before visited. Someone using her identity had created counterfeit checks, and then used her identity to cash them in at local banks and supermarkets.
The resulting legal battle between the local prosecutor and Nicolas has endangered her qualification for a security license and her firearms permit, and she has spent thousands of dollars on bail and a criminal attorney to help clear her name. To this day, the county where the fraud was committed still has not expunged the charges, and her assailant remains at large.
Nicolas said she felt as though she was considered guilty until proven innocent.
"You know, you get in a situation like that and you really have to prove that it wasn't you," Nicolas said. "This has pretty much ruined my life, and meanwhile this woman -- whoever she is -- is probably already out ruining someone else's."
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