Clone wars: learning to fight identity theft
July 30, 2010
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Manny and Melissa Marrero appeared to have the perfect life. With a nice home, three kids, and a commitment to serve their country, the Marreros enjoyed their military life in Kentucky. But when Marrero deployed to Iraq, his wife received grim news in the mail - the Internal Revenue Service held Marrero responsible for a $2,000 unpaid bill. Marrero was the victim of identity theft. While he fought to keep himself and his Soldiers alive, Melissa fought to clear his name.
"It was an eight to five job," said Melissa. "I was on the phone all day because companies kept transferring me or hanging up on me." The IRS dismissed her identity theft claim and demanded the bill be paid. In addition, someone in California had used her husband's social security number to obtain an apartment, utilities, car insurance and in-home entertainment. After months of frustration, California detectives identified the perpetrator - an illegal immigrant who'd used Marrero's identity to live the American dream for over three years.
"I feel betrayed by our system," Melissa told an audience on Fox 25's The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet. At the time of the show, her husband's identity thief continued to enjoy a fraudulent life on the West Coast. And according to Melissa, they still can't file their tax return without the $2,000 being deducted.
For the typical American household, there is a solid likelihood of someone becoming the victim of identity theft in its various forms - from email phishing to hacked consumer accounts to medical identity theft. According to Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert, law enforcement handles 9 to 10 million identity theft claims in a calendar year and the numbers are growing.
"If you have a social security number, chances are you are going to be the victim of identity theft some day," said Siciliano.
John Sileo, former identity theft victim and author of Think Like a Spy, agrees. He said ID theft can be "as emotionally violating as assault." Sileo spoke at York Theater July 22 as part of the Fort Bragg Consumer Awareness Month, Army Community Services Blue Ribbon Event on financial protection. Sileo is known as America's top identity theft speaker, and frequently speaks to Department of Defense and military installations about protecting personal identities in an increasingly vulnerable society.
In Sileo's case, a business partner used his identity to commit $300,000 worth of embezzlement, including stealing money from clients using the financial information on their checks (account and routing numbers). This left Sileo legally and financially at fault for crimes he didn't commit. Two years and $12,000 later, Sileo proved his innocence and watched the real criminal go to jail, only to be released a short time later.
"There is no federal jurisdiction against identity theft. If it happens in six states you've got to fight it in six states," noted Sileo.
Now Sileo, a Harvard graduate and president of The Sileo Group (a privacy think-tank), teaches people how to Think Like a Spy or 'bulletproof' their identities. His presentations cover topics like the top five social engineering triggers, scam detection questions, travel privacy tips, and thinking like a spy to stay secure.
According to Sileo, 40 percent of identity theft cases stem from stolen or compromised wallets. "We're in the information economy where information has value. How can we decide who to give that value to'" asked Sileo. "We are particularly engrained to give belongings away to authority type figures."
A stereotypical reaction places people in danger for identity theft, most often because we're trained to trust companies or professionals with our personal information.
"You have to listen to those instincts," said Sileo, who also cautioned against fearmongering. Sileo advised Soldiers to beware of gifts in exchange for information, flattery while asking for identity data, claims of punishment ("we'll cancel your account unless you click on this email link and update your account information") and situations engineered to appear time-sensitive ("we have to resolve this immediately/we need your social security number now").
Social engineers and con artists will manipulate situations using professional-sounding language, so be wary of 'companies' that call, text or email asking for sensitive data. Sileo also discussed debit and credit card swiping, which can occur when a waiter completes your transaction in the back of the restaurant.
"If it doesn't fit in with your life, (the solution) is no good," stated Sileo, who recommended real-time alerts on financial accounts. With mobile email, Soldiers and their Families can monitor account activity from almost anywhere (just be sure to place a passcode lock on a phone, so you control who accesses your email).