It's unnerving to think your identity could be out there somewhere, shambling around like a rotting zombie from The Walking Dead, wreaking unfathomable havoc on your reputation and credit score.
But in the hands of a nefarious fraudster, that's exactly what your digital identity could be doing.
Unfortunately, it's becoming more and more likely that you could fall prey to these thieves.
According to a 2012 study cited by Forbes magazine, one in every 20 adults has been affected by identity theft -- a number that industry watchdogs only expect to rise going into 2014. In the U.S. alone, the FTC hears from more than 20,000 consumers a week whose identities have been stolen. And the repercussions go far beyond a mere short-term financial inconvenience. You could potentially spend years trying to fix the fallout.
So what can you do to protect yourself? While there are many precautions to take, one of the most crucial ones is educating yourself in how these criminals operate. Check out these three identity fraud horror stories and pay close attention -- you might even learn something from these other people's stories.
Simon Bunce is Falsely Branded as a Pedophile
One particularly notorious identity theft story involves one Simon Bunce, an Englishman who subsequently lost his six-figure job and became alienated to friends and family. This all happened because his credit card was used to purchase and download child pornography.
Bunce, an avid online shopper, claims to only have dealt with large retailers and secure sites. Nevertheless, he was swept up as part of a massive UK anti-predator police offensive called Operation Ore. He was arrested on charges of possessing, downloading, and intending to distribute indecent images of children. His home and work computers were confiscated, along with a range of storage devices and media.
As you may already have gathered, though, Bunce was innocent of these crimes. Investigators later determined that his credit card details had been entered into a computer in Jakarta, Indonesia, and that he had actually been using the card at a South London restaurant at almost exactly the same moment. His credit card details had been taken from one of the many popular online shopping sites he frequented, most likely as a result of a data breach.
Although the situation was eventually resolved, Bunce said the damage had been done. "Being arrested and accused of what is probably one of the worst crimes known to man, losing my job, having my reputation run through the mud, it’s a living nightmare," he told the BBC in 2008.
Your Takeaway: There are actually two takeaways from this story. The first: You aren't necessarily safe even with the most ostensibly secure sites. When big companies' databases are compromised, they tend to send along a seemingly innocuous data breach notification that notifies you that someone may have accessed your data. As this identity theft infographic notes, 1 in 4 consumers that received a data breach notification letter became a victim of identity fraud.
The second takeaway is simply that you never know what an identity hijacker is going to do with your information. Bunce probably never dreamed that, were his identity to be stolen, it would be used for any other purpose than emptying his bank account or opening a new line of credit.
Anndorie Sachs is Accused of Being an Unfit Parent
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The story of Anndorie Sachs is unsettling, to say the least. It all began when Sachs (a mother of four who was attending school for a biomedical engineering degree) received a call from the Salt Lake City Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). It seemed that someone answering Sachs' name and description had given birth to a premature baby girl, who subsequently tested positive for methamphetamine. The mother had abruptly fled from the hospital leaving the infant and a $10,000 bill behind, and DCFS wanted some answers.
Of course, Sachs was not the mother of this child. The baby girl belonged to a woman named Dorthy Bell Moran, who'd stolen Sachs' driver's license from her car two months before. DCFS, however, was preparing to submit paperwork to declare Sachs an unfit mother and put her four kids into state custody. Sachs' 7-year-old daughter was also pulled out of school by DCFS agents and subjected to questioning.
Eventually, the issue was cleared up, but Sachs' problems persisted. Her medical records had been changed to include Moran's health profile, including her blood type and other information. Sachs can't even view her own medical records to ensure the information has been changed back -- the hospitals involved won't let her, ironically, because it could compromise the identity thief's own rights to medical privacy.
"It's especially scary," said Sachs, in an interview with WebMD, "because I have a blood-clotting disorder. If a doctor gave me the wrong blood type, it could be fatal."
Your Takeaway: Medical identity theft is a little-known type of identity theft that can have particularly devastating consequences. In a case like the Sachs fiasco, where the victim has a serious medical condition, the effect could be deadly. While Sachs certainly didn't mean for it to happen, she helped the identity thief by leaving her license somewhere that it could be stolen. If you never allow your license to leave your possession for any reason, however, you'll be exponentially decreasing your odds of having your identity stolen in a similar manner.
Gregory Welch Files Taxes... Two Months after His Death
When 18-year-old community college student Gregory Welch died tragically in a car accident on February 14, 2013, his family was completely devastated. He had been riding with a 19-year-old friend, who lost control of the car on Shore Road in Virginia Beach around 1 a.m. They were wearing seatbelts and their air bags deployed, but Welch was pronounced dead at the scene. Police later said that speed had been a contributing factor in the tragedy.
The story, unfortunately, does not end there. The Welch family's grief was reawakened eight weeks later, when they tried to file their deceased son's taxes. It turned out that someone had already filed for a tax return in his name, and that it was for a considerably larger amount of money than would be possible for the $10 an hour he earned delivering pizzas. They subsequently spent months dealing with the IRS and the U.S. Attorney's Office, no doubt reliving their grief.
"It was just kind of like being punched in the stomach," Virginia Welch told The Virginian-Pilot. "It's such a dishonor to our son."
Your Takeaway: More and more criminals are stealing the identities of the recently departed. When a loved one passes away, don't stop at simply closing their accounts. Specialists in this field say that relatives should ask credit-reporting agencies to place a "do not issue credit" alert for the deceased individual. They also recommend that relatives check the deceased's credit report for the next year in order to spot any unusual activity.
As you can see, identity theft can cause utter chaos in the lives of its victims. With any luck, though, reading these stories will prevent you from suffering a similar fate. By staying informed and paying close attention, you'll be able to greatly reduce your chances of becoming another statistic of this crime.
Now it's time to have your say: Do you have your own identity theft horror story? How has becoming the victim of this crime affected your life? Share the details with us in the comments below.
Written on 10/25/2013 by Abigail Clark.
Photo Credit: Don Hankins