18 Surprising Ways Your Identity Can Be Stolen

Most people have already been victims of the most basic forms of identity theft — having fraudulent charges on your credit card. Those even less lucky have been victimized in more aggressive ways, with criminals obtaining medical care, working, and flying in our names.

Unwinding that mess can take years and thousands of dollars. The effect is exacerbated by the fact that the crime doesn’t generally stop with the one person who stole your information. Credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, and other data gets packaged and sold on the underground Internet so that different people all over the world could be impersonating you at the same time.

“It’s a pain. It does cause a lot of stress,” said Lindsay Bartsh, of San Rafael, California, who said that straightening out a web of fraudulent medical bills, flights, job applications, and credit applications took every minute of her free time for a year.

How does it happen? Here’s a look at both the most common ways thieves steal our data, as well as some of the newest ploys to watch out for.

1. Mail Theft

Bartsh believes this time-honored tactic is how her personal information got out into the criminal underworld. An expected W-2 tax form never arrived. Assuming it was stolen, it would have given thieves a wealth of information, such as Social Security number and workplace.

2. Database Hacks

When a large corporation gets hacked, the effect can be widespread. When the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management was breached, some 22 million people had their personal information exposed. (I was one of the many who received a warning about this, because I had a writing contract with a government agency.)

3. Malicious Software

If you have a virus on your computer, you may suffer more than a slowdown or a system crash. Some malicious programs that spread as viruses record every keystroke you type, allowing thieves to find out your online banking username and password. These programs can infect your mobile phone as well as your computer.

4. Search Engine Poisoning

This is a sneaky way of tricking people into giving up their own personal data, or getting malicious software onto a person’s computer. The criminals create a fake website similar to a real one, or that could plausibly be a real one.

One tactic is for you to click through to the fake site and try to buy a product, entering your credit card or debit card number. Another way they try to get you is for you to unknowingly download information-stealing software onto your computer.

Where does the search engine part come in? These criminals manipulate Google and other search engines’ algorithms to get their phony sites ranked high in search listings, leading users to believe they must be legit. Fortunately, Google has made progress in preventing this in recent years, but it still happens.

5. Phishing

Phishing is a term that broadly means “fishing” for personal information through a variety of common social interactions — so-called “social engineering.” The most common phishing attack happens when you get an email that looks like it came from your bank or another legitimate company. It may come with an alarming subject line, such as “overdraft warning” or “your order has shipped.” When you click a link in the email, you may see a login screen identical to your normal login, which will trick you into entering your username and password. You could also be asked for more identifying details, such as Social Security number and account number.

Fortunately, banks have put some countermeasures into place to fight phishing. You can also protect yourself by not responding directly to incoming messages. If you get an email that looks like it’s from your bank, type your bank address into your browser instead of clicking the link, sign in, and check your account’s message center. Or just call your bank’s customer service number.

6. Phone Attacks

The Internal Revenue Service has been warning for several years that scammers are calling people claiming to be the…

What happens when you look at crime by the numbers

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crime scene

BOSTON, Mass. — The best crime-fighting tools would, in theory, prevent illegal activity from ever happening. Some police departments have adopted tools they hoped would accomplish this. They analyze data on past crimes with an eye toward predicting where more crime might occur. Then they send extra officers to patrol such places. But there’s a risk to that approach: The data used may not reflect the true rates of local crime. And this could threaten to derail efforts at effective crime prevention, experts now contend.

Such faulty data also risk reinforcing racist attitudes and stereotypes, statisticians said at a forum, here, on February 19. The program was held at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Police departments want to do a good job at fighting crime. But the data they work from may be flawed. For instance, those data may not reflect the full range of people committing crimes. Or they may focus on certain neighborhoods while ignoring others where illegal activities also occur.

Such biased data can inappropriately suggest that some areas as especially crime-ridden. Or if certain types of criminals are less likely to be caught — such as wealthy or well-educated people — police might focus their attention on poorer or less-educated individuals.

Kristian Lum is a statistician, someone who collects and analyzes numbers-based data. She works with the Human Rights Data Analysis Group in San Francisco, Calif. In one of her recent projects, she used a computer to analyze where drug crimes had been occurring in the nearby town of Oakland, Calif. The computer then predicted — or modeled — where police should deploy patrols to head off future drug activity.

This computer model concluded that most drug crimes took place in areas with high numbers of low-income people and where many people were not white. So that’s where more police should go in the future, the model recommended.

In fact, Lum argues, it’s not clear how well this model worked at depicting the situation in Oakland. Those data on drug crimes were biased, she now reports. The problem was not deliberate, she says. Rather, data collectors just missed some criminals and crime sites. So data on them never made it into her model.

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The areas where arrests for drug crimes in Oakland were reported (red regions on map at left) was much smaller than the areas where other studies suggested drug use was taking place (right map).

One problem: Many crimes don’t get reported

Past research has suggested that drug abuse and crimes take place at roughly the same rates among different ethnic groups and income levels, Lum says. Poor neighborhoods with many ethnic minorities, though, may get more police attention. So officers may see and collect more crime data from such places.

The police and others may be less likely to notice and report drug crimes in well-to-do areas. Officers also may be less likely to stop someone for suspicious behavior in certain neighborhoods. They might instead focus on where crowds are likely and where people on the streets often interact. If crimes also happen elsewhere, the police may not know about them.

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Illegal drug activity can take place in all sorts of neighborhoods. But it may get reported for some areas more than others.

Therefore, if a model is based only on police data, it won’t include all crimes, Lum argues. “To know all crimes, you’d have to live in some sort of surveillance state,” she says. By that, she means the government would watch your every move. And no one wants that.

“You’re going to find things where you’re looking,” Lum says. If you mostly look in inner-city black or Latino neighborhoods, most of the crimes you find will be there. And any computer model working with such skewed data would mistakenly predict that these areas are hot spots for future crime. Such a model would reinforce the idea that certain groups of people are more likely to be criminals — even if they aren’t.

That idea also runs afoul of basic U.S. constitutional law. (A new, February…

Murder in the Heartland: The Wichita Massacre

In December of 2000, two brothers went on a rampage of robbery, assault, and murder that shocked Wichita, Kansas and the nation. The brutality of the crimes committed by Reginald and Jonathan Carr stunned even the most hardened investigators, and the memory of the deadly spree is still burned into the psyche of those who call Wichita home.

Reginald and Jonathan Carr were ex-convicts who started their crime spree on December 8, 2000, shortly after they arrived in Wichita. That day, they robbed a 23-year-old man, making the victim drive to a number of ATMs before they dropped him off in a deserted area. Three days later, on December 11, the Carr brothers shot 55-year-old Ann Walenta, who attempted to escape as they tried to carjack her. Walenta would die weeks later, but she played a vital role in the capture of the Carr brothers.

On December 14, three days after Walenta’s shooting, Reginald and Jonathan Carr’s crime spree reached a shocking apex. The Carrs chose a house at random for a robbery. Five young people, three men and two women all in their 20s, were in the house that night. The Carr brothers forced their way into the home, confronted the five guests, and ransacked the home for valuables.

The brothers then forced the occupants of the house to strip naked. The Carrs raped the two young women repeatedly and forced the men and women to engage in sexual acts to humiliate them. Reginald Carr took one victim at a time to ATMs around town to drain their bank accounts while his brother Jonathan guarded the others at the house.

Reginald and Jonathan Carr then made a decision that would seal their fates and shock the residents of Wichita.

The brothers made all five victims get into two cars. The women wore only tops, no pants or shoes, and the three men were completely naked. The temperature hovered around 17 degrees as the Carrs drove to an isolated, snowy soccer field on the outskirts of town. All five victims were removed from the two cars and shot execution-style in the back of the head. The brothers then drove one of the victim’s trucks over the 5 bodies in the snow to try to ensure their deaths.

But Reginald and Jonathan Carr’s plan did not work out the way they had intended;…

A List of Criminals Who Claimed to Have Multiple Personalities

Accused criminals have used some wild excuses to explain away their crimes. Ethan Couch said he suffered from “affluenza.” Dan White blamed junk food (well, not exactly). But perhaps the most controversial defense to this day is dissociative identity disorder (DID)—previously known as multiple personality disorder.

There’s an enormous amount of suspicion surrounding dissociative identity disorder. Psychiatrists believe that people who suffer from this condition splinter their personality to deal with a trauma, often childhood abuse. By this definition, someone with DID could conceivably commit a horrific crime and not even know it—because one of their “multiples” or “alters” did it instead.

Skeptics believe criminals lie about having this disorder to avoid consequences, and it probably doesn’t help that characters in pulpy movies like Fight Club, Identity, and M. Night Shyamalan’s new film Split all have it. Still, some courts have accepted this plea, as three of these real-life cases show. But the other two prove that DID remains a highly contentious legal defense.

Most people trace the multiple personality defense back to Billy Milligan. Milligan was hauled into court in 1978 on several counts of rape, aggravated robbery, and kidnapping. His case soon garnered national attention when his lawyers pursued a plea of insanity, arguing that two different personalities had committed the crimes—not Milligan. This defense was highly unusual for the time, but it worked. Milligan was found not guilty, and the judge committed him to a psychiatric hospital. He escaped for four months in 1986, was released in 1991, and died from cancer in 2014.

Psychiatrists have suggested that Milligan had as many as 24 personalities, including a Yugoslavian munitions expert and a 3-year-old girl. Milligan’s life was also the subject of a nonfiction book, The Minds of Billy Milligan, which has long been in movie development. And if Leonardo DiCaprio has his way, he’ll be starring as Milligan.


Juanita Maxwell’s legal problems began in 1979, when she was charged with beating a 73-year-old woman to death. The murder occurred at the hotel where Maxwell worked as a maid and where the woman in question, Inez Kelly, lived. But Maxwell insisted that she hadn’t killed Kelly; her brasher…