In a story about identity theft in our November 2001 issue (“To Catch a Thief”), we pointed out that the amount of wealth a person possesses is a factor when ID thieves choose their targets. Since then, a new, more sinister strategy has emerged. An increasing number of identity thieves are prowling closer to home—to be more precise, they are operating inside the home. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently reported that the percentage of identity thefts involving a relationship between victim and impostor is decreasing, yet the number of reported cases is increasing.
However, Linda Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization for victims, is skeptical about the data. She believes the number of family-related ID thefts is greater than indicated by the FTC. “I think that in this situation, the FTC numbers must be questioned. Family members are often reluctant to report this crime to any authority group,” she says. “That is one of the reasons that law enforcement doesn’t hear about these cases, either.”
The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer education, research, and advocacy group, offers a number of reasons why some identity thieves prey on relatives: The imposter may have an emotional problem, an addiction, a need for attention, or be suffering a financial hardship. Some imposters, including ex-spouses, have more malicious intents and use identity theft to abuse the victim.
An identity thief who targets his own family may operate on the assumption that a relative would not press charges because of a familial bond or out of a desire to avoid publicity. “After all, what kind of son or daughter or parent would you be if you caused a family member to go to jail?” asks Foley. “There is often pressure from others in the family to be inactive and not complain. It’s not that [the victims] are more forgiving. It’s the common misconception that the victim is not harmed.”
Johnny May, author of the book The Guide to Identity Theft Prevention, cautions victims that trying to keep the crime quiet could lead to larger problems. “If you don’t report [the theft], it looks suspicious to your creditors,” he says. “You may appear suspect when trying to clear your name.”