Three days before leaving for a Hawaiian getaway, Abby Beeler realized the worst possible scenario had come true: Someone had hacked into her bank account and stolen money.
The 24-year-old San Francisco resident was at a loss. She said she didn’t know what to do.
“I was really dumbfounded by it,” she said. “I thought I did everything right.”
Instead of preparing for her trip, Beeler said she had to visit the bank, close her accounts and wait for the $2,500 to be replenished after she returned from her four-day trip.
“It’s not fun to have no money,” she said. “It was very traumatic and something I will never forget.”
Hacking into bank accounts is one form of identity theft, but it doesn’t mean there are fewer headaches for consumers whose identity is stolen.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2008, more than 1.2 million complaints of fraud were filed by consumers in 30 categories that included credit reports, debt collection, mortgages and lending.
Among those filing reports of identity theft, the most common was credit card fraud, according to a February 2009 report. Government benefit fraud was second on the list.
California, according to the report, had the second-highest identity theft rate per capita, following only Arizona. More than 52,000 complaints of identity theft were filed with the commission in 2008.
In San Francisco, 86 cases of identity theft and high-tech crimes were investigated by the District Attorney’s Office last year. San Mateo County’s count was higher, with 313 felony and misdemeanor cases investigated.
San Mateo County Deputy District Attorney Chris Feasel said identity theft is an $8 billion industry. With new technology, the identity of unknowing consumers is being bought and sold on the Internet at a rapid pace.
“It’s as simple as greed,” Feasel said of reasons why the crime is committed. “Someone takes your information by getting past firewalls on your computer and they sell it for a profit and that sale puts your information online where it is bought and sold over and over again.”
Mike Prusinski, a certified identity theft risk management specialist with identity-theft protection company LifeLock, said that because of the Internet, many times people don’t even know they are victims of a stolen identity. He warned of third-party software that allows people to share music files worldwide.
“Napster was an early example of this,” he said. “You download the program and essentially agree to let down the firewalls on the computer.”
These programs, he said, open your personal information to criminals.
“If you’ve got your tax forms saved on your computer, you just opened all of your vital information to criminals,” he said.
The best way to protect yourself from these criminals, Prusinski said, is to uninstall these programs.
Identity theft, however, is not limited to the Internet.
Schemes can also occur from visits to a restaurant, trips to the gas station or even mail stolen out of a mailbox.
Door-to-door scams are also common ways to steal an identity, said Justin Feffer, senior investigator with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Bureau of Investigation Cyber Crime Team.
For instance, the census is one opportunity criminals use to gain access to personal identify information.
Feffer said scammers pretending to be with the census go door-to-door, claiming a form was not turned in.
An unsuspecting person will answer questions and give out their Social Security number, credit card numbers or phone number, while others will say they’ve already filled out the form and the criminal moves on.
“Anyone with a Social Security card is a potential victim here,” he said. “If you know what the census is looking for, the thief is not going to waste his time.”
Law enforcement and investigators agree the best way to protect yourself from any kind of identity theft is to monitor your accounts and stay educated on new technology and techniques used to steal identity.
Erica Terry Derryck, spokeswoman with the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, said half the battle against identity theft is educating the public.
“It’s best not to be a victim in the first place,” she said.
Derryck recommend potential victims to report the crimes so investigators have additional pieces of information for tracking large rings.
Beeler learned the hard way and said she plans to change how she tracks her personal information.
“I’m not doing it online, that’s for sure,” Beeler said.
Identity theft rings have wide impact
When Bradley Williams was seen taking mail from San Francisco mailboxes in 2008, the District Attorney’s Office, along with the Secret Service and the U.S. Postal Service, set up surveillance on the man that ultimately led to a search warrant of his house.
What authorities found when they entered his home, however, was more than they bargained for.
Bradley had stolen 1,874 pieces of mail from 1,111 people, a majority of whom were San Francisco residents.
His motive, according to the District Attorney’s Office, was to obtain personal information such as checks and use it to open bank accounts and credit cards.
District Attorney’s office spokeswoman Erica Terry Derryck said her office only investigates large-scale rings or identity-theft cases. Unless the crime is reported, it is hard for investigators to piece the information together.
“This is a perfect example of the rings that are out there,” Derryck said of Williams. “You see a guy stealing mail from a mailbox and you get back to his house and you’re like, ‘Wow, its bigger than we thought.’”
Identity-theft rings similar to the Williams case are still common, Derryck said, even though advances in technology have allowed the crime to multiply and spread rapidly across counties, states and even countries.
The Williams case spurred District Attorney Kamala Harris’ interest in seeking greater cooperation between law enforcement jurisdictions because so many of these cases span geographical areas.
Senate bill 226, which will allow prosecutors to try all identity-theft and fraud cases against one person in one county, was approved by the state Legislature and signed into law in August.
The District Attorney’s Office also issued a 25-page guide after Williams’ final accomplice, Jessica Vota, was convicted and sentenced to one year in county jail plus probation. Lynn Younger, another accomplice, was also sentenced to one year in jail plus probation, and Williams was given a four-year state prison term.
Derryck said these three cases were some of San Francisco’s 89 identity-theft and high-tech crime cases investigated in 2009. Twenty-six of those cases were new that year. In total, 43 of the cases prosecuted were convicted.
How they do it
The most common ways your identity is stolen:
- Internet: Sharing personal information on unsecure sites
- Dumpster diving: Thief rummages through trash looking for personal information
- Mail: Stealing mail, including bank statements, credit card offers, checks and tax information
- Skimming: Thief steals debit or credit card numbers by using data storage device to capture information at ATM or gas station
- Phishing: Thief sends e-mail falsely claiming to be from legitimate organization or bank and gets you to provide bank accounts or credit card numbers and passwords
- Hacking: Forcing entry into personal information that is stored electronically either through your computer, company’s computer or bank
How to protect yourself from identity theft
1. Make a police report
2. Place fraud alert on your credit file
3. Check credit reports
4. Close fraudulent accounts, report fraudulent charges
5. Contact government agencies
6. Reduce the amount of personal information in circulation
Source: San Francisco District Attorney’s Office
By the numbers
89 identity-theft and high-tech crimes were investigated in San Francisco in 2009
26 new cases last year
15 convictions resulting in state prison sentences
44 years to be served
1.2 million complaints of fraud to FTC in 2008
51,140 complaints filed in California
10,197 credit card fraud complaints
$8 billion value of ID-theft industry
Source: District Attorney’s Office, Federal Trade Commission