Identity theft has been around for centuries, but only the methods have changed today. Mail theft, forged identification numbers and database breaches have replaced clever disguises and elaborate forgeries. This crime has exploded in recent years simply because it is so easy to commit—thieves only have to pay attention, piece together a profile of you, forge a few pieces of plastic and walk into a lending institution.

When you buy gas or food, do you pay with a credit or debit card? Do you receive bank statements in the mail? When you receive pre-screened credit card offers, do you toss them in the trash? Do months go by before you review your credit card statements? If you answered yes to any of these questions, your information could be in the hands of an identity thief right now.

Scammers don’t get lucky with every victim they target, but they manage to steal enough money and personal information to keep themselves in business, with little risk of getting caught.

Methods and Tactics – Hint: It’s Not All Through the Internet

Thanks to high-profile news stories and Hollywood movies, many people imagine clever and ever-evolving electronic tactics, with slick and intelligent hackers using sophisticated computers and algorithms to hack into corporate databases and your online accounts. This can indeed happen; however, it is actually very rare. Most identity theft (nearly 80%) happens through some surprisingly low-tech methods: purse-snatching, mail theft and dumpster diving. We will discuss these in this article.

Purse Snatching and Shoulder Surfing

With the Christmas season upon us, crowded malls (even if they are not as crowded as previous years) make for fertile ground for theft. Thieves find this time of year a goldmine for theft. Why? Two reasons –

  1. Large crowds – All the jostling leaves victims less aware that some types of pushing are not only to pick up that sale item. Purse-snatchers can steal from you and then quickly blend back into the crowd. Not only will they have your money, but more importantly, all your personal identification and credit cards.
  2. Shoppers are often harried and distracted – This makes it easier for a thief to steal a purse or wallet without a victim noticing.

With the crowds and distractions, a thief can also find shoulder surfing easier to do. That is, looking over your shoulder as you enter your PIN number at the cash register or ATM.

To prevent identity theft at the mall, it is best to follow these practices:

  • Know what you are going to buy beforehand, so you are not as distracted.
  • Keep your purse close to your body and the zipper closed.
  • When entering your PIN, cover the pad with your other hand.
  • Before shopping, only bring the cards and identification you need.

Mail Theft and Dumpster Diving

How do you receive most of your personal information, such as bank account and credit card statements? Through the mail, of course. Thieves can easily steal your mail, and your statements have all the personal information one needs to commit crimes in your name. Even worse, thieves, now posing as you, can simply write to your financial institutions saying that you have moved, and all future statements will be rerouted to a different address. Without regular statements, the identity thief buys time before you become suspicious.

Dumpster diving is simply stealing your trash, hoping to find discarded bank statements or other personally identifiable information.

These types of theft are the easiest to avoid – buy a secure, locked mailbox and a cross-cut paper shredder to destroy any sensitive information before being thrown out. Identity thieves will not take the trouble to pick your lock or piece together shredded scraps—they will instead go after easier targets.

We like to think that identity theft can’t happen to us. The sad truth is that it can, and far more easily than we think. Being alert in malls, covering your hand while entering your PIN, installing a secure mailbox, and investing in a shredder are very easy ways to thwart the attention of identity thieves. By protecting yourself from over three quarters of the tactics thieves use to steal personal information, you greatly reduce your chances of being a victim.