Research shows that between eight and nine million Americans have their identities stolen each year. Although the median financial loss is only about $500, some people lose far more.

What Is Identity Theft?

Identity theft occurs when a criminal uses the personal information of another person to commit fraud. The information that is stolen may include credit card information, bank account information and checks, as well as social security numbers and other identifying information. The criminal activity may include charging items to an existing account, establishing new accounts, renting an apartment or even committing a crime under the stolen identity.

How Is Information Stolen?

Identity thieves come across personal information in a variety of ways. Some find the information as part of another crime, such as burglary or mugging. Others search trash cans and dumpsters for documents with identifying information. Some use more high-tech processes such as skimming a credit card number during a transaction or hacking into a computer network.

What Are Some Common Identity Theft Crimes?

Identity theft crimes can be classified into several categories. Credit card fraud is quick and easy for the thief, and difficult for the customer to track down quickly. The thief may use a stolen credit card number or apply for another card in the victim’s name. If the bills are diverted to a different address, the victim may be unaware of the problem for some time.

Bank fraud is a collection of crimes that are linked to a bank account. The thief may steal and use paper checks or steal or clone a debit card . Additionally, a new account may be opened in the victim’s name. Counterfeit checks may be created. The thief may also take out bank loans in the victim’s name. As with credit card fraud, bank fraud may go undetected for a period of time.

The government can even be the victim of identity theft. The thief may use the victim’s information to get a drivers license with his or her picture and the victim’s name. He or she may file a fraudulent tax return in the victim’s name. The thief may even give the victim’s name to the police if charged with a crime.

Other crimes include renting an apartment, obtaining medical services and even getting a job in the victim’s name. A particularly difficult crime to untangle is synthetic identity theft, in which the thief pieces together an entirely new identity based partially on information collected from one or more victims.

Identity theft crimes tend to be complicated. The victim is rarely aware of the theft until some time has passed. By the time he or she is aware that the theft occurred, the thief may have already left a trail of damage that can be difficult to unravel. The best defense appears to be regular monitoring of one’s consumer credit report. Combined with security measures, this monitoring can minimize damages and help to avoid becoming a victim.