by Michael Bret Hood – Financial Crimes, Implicit Bias, & Leadership Expert, Author, Instructor, Consultant & Speaker – Retired FBI Agent
In the last six years, identity thieves have victimized millions upon millions of people. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been lost due to this crime, yet many people fail to consider the possibility that their identity could be stolen. I was one such person. With over twenty-five years’ experience as a Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent, I thought that even the most brazen identity thief would pursue lower hanging fruit rather than someone with my experience. Was I ever wrong?
The United States mail system used to be easy pickings for identity thieves. All they had to do was drive around, see the red flag on the mailbox in the upright position, and take whatever was in the box. Normally, this gave them your checking account as well as credit card account numbers, which could be leveraged into extracting your personally identifiable information from an unsuspecting customer service representative. The digital age has changed the identity thief’s modus operandi.
Today, these thieves don’t have to drive around to find the information they need. Rather, all they need to do is go onto the Internet. While it is accepted that the more social media sites you visit, the more susceptible you are to fraud, there are some interesting findings in the data. ID Analytics, a fraud-fighting firm took 100,000 records of known victims and non-victims of fraud and analyzed their social media footprint. Those users who shared the most about themselves online were four times more likely to be victims of fraud.
This is not the only way identity thieves prey on unsuspecting Internet users, however. Recently, online fraudsters have been placing ads on Craig’s List and other similar sites seeking renters for fictitious properties. When the potential renter contacts the poster, the identity thief asks for their financial information as well as a copy of a recent credit report. These requests seem sensible so many people provide this information only to never hear from the fraudster again. A similar scam is being utilized against people who are trying to find jobs. Eager to seek employment, they are asked to fill out an application, which include all kinds of personally identifiable information. Once again, there are no return calls because, in reality, there are no jobs.
Finally, we come back to my story. In anticipation of retirement, I thought it would be beneficial for me to develop an online presence in order to assist my job search. As such, I knew better than to put any real identifiable information about me on the Internet, but I did post my position, my years of experience, and where I had served previously within the FBI. About a month before I was to retire, I received a phone call from one of my friends asking if I was harassing innocent citizens and trying to extort money from them. To my surprise, there had been a complaint to a field office where an identity thief using my name and position had been contacting various individuals advising them that the FBI was coming to arrest them if they did not immediately send a money transfer via Western Union or some other intermediary. Shortly after learning about this scam, I posted a warning on LinkedIn for people who may be called by the identity thief as well as to the identity thieves themselves. I received more than a few responses from people indicating that they had received a telephone call from the fake FBI Special Agent Michael Bret Hood but smartly had declined to send money. Since my post, I haven’t heard of any new people being approached but that may be due to the work of my former colleagues in the FBI who don’t take kindly to identity thieves using the FBI as part of their scam.
If you are the victim of identity theft, there are several things you can do. First, you can always file a police report although you should expect that unless the identity thief is local, there is not much investigation that is likely to be done. This is not because local police do not care about identity theft, but rather because of legal issues such as venue and the likelihood of interstate/international correspondence, which makes it more difficult for local and state police to obtain the documentary evidence they need. Having a police report, however, can help you fight any bank, credit union, or other financial company that tries to collect on a debt you did not incur.
Secondly, you should always file a report with the FBI at www.ic3.gov as well as with the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov). While you may not have experienced loss, or experienced a small loss, the aggregate of these losses could be substantial and a little piece of information that you may possess could break an investigation wide open.
Third, you should notify your banks and your credit card companies as soon as you become aware of the identity theft. Failure to do so could potentially leave you liable for certain losses. In addition, it would also be prudent to notify all three credit bureaus (http://www.identitytheft.info/creditors.aspx). This could save you some embarrassment as well as time during the next instance where you try to purchase something with your credit card.
We like to think that bad things will never happen to us, but inevitably, we cannot escape everything. As the world moves further into the convenience offered by our expanding digital infrastructure, the realm of criminals with access to our information has exponentially expanded. Taking simple precautions such as having a complex password unrelated to family, birthdate, and/or job could be the difference between being a victim and being ignored. In addition, monitoring friend requests as well as the kinds of information you post online may also keep you more protected. Although I will continue to keep my carefully selected information viewable online, I am warning everyone who will listen…… neither I nor the FBI will ever call you and ask for money in order for you to avoid an arrest!