Identity theft, also known as identity fraud, is a crime in which an imposter obtains pieces of personally identifiable information, such as your name, address, Social Security or driver’s license numbers, in order to impersonate someone else. 


This information can be used to obtain merchandise, credit and services in the name of the victim or to provide the thief with false credentials. In rare cases, an imposter can even provide false identification to police, creating a criminal record or leaving outstanding arrest warrants for the person whose identity has been stolen. 


There are two categories in which identity theft is committed: true name and account takeover. True-name identity theft means that the thief uses personal information to open new accounts. The thief might open a new credit card amount, establish a cellular phone service or open a new checking account in order to obtain blank checks. 


Account-takeover identity theft means the imposter uses personal information to gain access to the person’s existing accounts. Typically, the thief will change the mailing address on an account and run up a huge bill before the person whose identity has been stolen realizes there is a problem. Unfortunately, the internet has made it easier for an identity thief to use the information they’ve stolen, because transactions can be made without any personal interaction. 


There are many different example of identity theft, such as: 


  • Tax-related identity theft, where a thief files a false tax return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) using a stolen Social Security number. 
  • Medical identity theft, where a thief steals information, including health insurance member numbers, to receive medical services. 
  • Child identity theft, where a child’s Social Security number is misused to apply for government benefits, open bank accounts and other services. 
  • Senior identity theft, where a senior is the target of identity theft. Seniors are often in contact with medical professionals and insurance providers, and may be used to giving out their personal information. 


Although an identity thief might hack into a database to obtain personal information, experts say it’s more likely the thief would obtain information by using old-fashioned methods. Dumpster diving, or retrieving personal paperwork and discarded mail from public trash dumpsters and the trash of businesses, is one of the easiest ways for an identity thief to get information. Recipients of preapproved credit card applications often discard them without shredding them first, leaving identity thieves free to try to activate the cards and use them. 


Another method of getting information is shoulder surfing, done by simply standing next to someone in a public venue, such as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, to observe as the person fills out personal information. Phishing and spam email are also used to trick people into offering up their information to identity thieves masquerading as legitimate financial entities. The email may contain attachments bearing malware designed to steal personal data or links to fraudulent website where the person would be prompted to enter their information. 


If you believe you have experienced someone may try to use the identity theft methods above against you or would like to get protection from the threats of identity theft, check our list of the best identity theft protection services. Not only can you find more information about identity theft, but you might also find the company that suits you and your needs.