We don’t think much about our identity. It is something that we take as a given. We start to think about it more only when it is threatened. Then we start to wonder what our identity is and how easy it is to steal someone’s life. So what is identity theft? It occurs when someone deliberately uses another person’s personal identifying information as a method to gain money or other advantages.
Today, in the digital age, it would seem to be both harder and easier to steal someone’s identity, given that we have so many tools to protect ourselves from it. We also however give away our data to a staggering number of companies. What is needed for someone to take over our life? That depends on the type of theft. According to the Federal Trade Commission there are 7 categories of identity theft: Credit Card, Employment or Tax-Related, Phone or Utilities, Bank, Loan, Government Documents or Benefits and other. More information about what is identity theft, the categories and what are its repercussions you can find in our article.
Throughout our history there were many examples of identity theft, some less serious and some that led even to war. Let’s go back to 16th century Russia where the false son of Ivan the Terrible, False Dmitry I was raised to the throne by an uprising and ruled the country for a year until he was killed. This was one of the reasons for the Polish–Russian War of 1605–1618 or the Dimitriads, since after the first false Dmitry there were two other pretenders who claimed to be the tsars’ sons.
One of the most known impersonations was also of a Russian royalty. Several women claimed to be the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, who was murdered in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. None were proven, but they gained the notoriety of the public.
Let’s move forward in time to 2017 when a russian hacker, Roman Seleznev, was a part of a $50 million online identity theft case. He created a website where he sold stolen credit cards and identity data, for which he was sentenced 14 years in prison. Just a year later $3.5 million was extorted by Kenneth Gilbert Gibson, who using stolen identities created more than 8000 fraudulent online accounts with PayPal. The police discovered in his office computers that were running an automatic script to open up online accounts. He stole the data from employees and customers of the company that he worked for. To avoid detection he only moved small amounts of money, which did not raise any red flags with the financial institutions. Many of his victims didn’t realise that their identity was stolen until they tried to get a loan, or were contacted by the authorities or collection agencies.
Many celebrities have also been the victim of an identity theft. In 2011, the owner of the hair salon in Los Angeles, whose clients were famous actresses like Jennifer Aniston, Anne Hathaway and Liv Tyler, stole their clients credit card information and extorted around $300,000.
A pro golfer Tiger Woods had to testify in court against Anthony Lemar Taylor, who stole the sportsman’s social security number and obtained credit cards and drivers license in his name. The charges on fraudulent credit card were up to $17,000. Taylor was found guilty and sentenced to 200 years-to-life in prison (due to the fact that he had prior charges).
In 2014, Kim Kardashian had also been the victim of an identity theft. 19-year-old Luis Flores, Jr. called the credit card company American Express claiming to be Kim Kardashian and changed her social security number and address to his own, so that he could receive new cards. He had private information of several celebrities and politicians such as Bill Gates, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden and Beyoncé. During the investigation he was also linked to cases involving frauds against the U.S. Marshals Service Director Stacia Hylton and former FBI director Robert Mueller. He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in federal prison. The information of the victims were posted online and probably gathered by hackers.
There have been so many stories about a person who extorted money from ordinary people by impersonating a celebrity. Polish woman believed that she was communicating with Will Smith and lost thousands of dollars as a result. What is even more interesting is the fact that they also communicated via video connection and the fraudster looked like the actor. Once he gained her trust, he asked her for a favour, which was to pick up a parcel, allegedly with divorce papers, diamonds and cash worth $9 million. The only catch was that the woman had to pay for customs and a certificate that would authorize her to pick it up. The woman paid over $11 thousand and after that the alleged Will Smith broke off contact with her. So far the police were not able to identify the fraudster.
Much higher losses suffered a woman who believed that she was talking with the son of Clint Eastwood – Scott. He convinced her that he wants to buy land and real estate in Poland. The things that prevented him from doing so were his blocked bank accounts in the US and his father’s illness. She believed him because he did send her a copy of his passport and made up a convincing back story. Over all the woman had sent him over $150 000, when she tried to get from him a contract that he had promised her he stopped answering. The police are still looking for the fraudster.
According to the statistics there were 4.8 million identity theft and fraud reports received by the US Federal Trade Commission in 2020. More than $3.3 billion in losses were reported. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a rise of fraud involving the financial aid for those whose businesses and workplaces suffered from the pandemic. Apart from the money lost, the victims also experience emotional trauma and in many cases they are not able to move forward with big life choices like buying a house or moving to a different city, due to the fact that their credit history has been compromised.
How can we protect ourselves from identity theft? First of all don’t give away your personal identity information, check carefully the companies that process them and choose the ones that comply to the highest standards of GDPR. Be very careful when using public networks. Don’t use public Wi-Fi for shopping, banking or other actions that require your personal information. Don’t trust strangers online, especially when they start to ask for favours. Check your bank and credit card statements and look for unauthorized transactions. Protect your accounts with a strong password and use a password manager. Review your credit reports or create an alert for new credit transactions. All of these actions will make you a more difficult target of identity theft. Fraudsters are continually coming up with ideas on how to use modern technology to extort your personal information so stay vigilant.