The Investigator: Identity theft

This column, which is written by investigator RW “Pete” Peterson discusses issues and cases related to investigations and investigative services.

RW ‘Pete’ PetersonBy RW “Pete” Peterson

Cash is King.

Whenever possible, one way to limit you chances of incurring identity theft is to use good old-fashion cash.

Banks, the government, credit tracking firms, firms that compile consumer data and other crooks and busy bodies really want you to use only plastic.

Retail businesses and restaurants would appreciate your cash as it avoids the bank fees that they have to pay on credit card purchases.

Some businesses, like the excellent ‘Thyme in the Ranch’ restaurant, only accept cash and they can probably pass the savings on to their customers — This also has the benefit of expediting the line since people aren’t rummaging around in their purses/wallets trying to find the right card and possibly the ID that may be required. Cash keeps you anonymous and protects your privacy.

This makes it difficult for banks, government and other nosey people to compile information on your movements, lifestyle, bad habits, etc., etc. Say you don’t have anything to hide? Well, you are compiling a dossier of your life for someone else to peruse. You don’t want a thief to steal a couple of hundred cash from you, but that can be a minor annoyance compared to the hours, days or months to rectify the loss of debit/credit cards, ID, etc.

There is the problem created by the newer RFID cards (radio frequency i.d.) that can be scanned without touching them. You can keep the cards in an aluminum wallet to block the transmission.

There is also the new cell phone scanner that enables crooks to scan your cards anywhere.

Hand that plastic card over to the wrong person and you’ve just opened up a file on your life. You’ve handed over the keys to the castle.

With the advent of the ubiquitous ATM machine you can easily use cash and avoid handing your card and ID to many people each month. And you don’t have to be a “Doomsday Prepper” to realize that a stockpile of cash is a good hedge against unforeseen circumstances.

We’ve been able to track and refer for prosecution several identity thieves. We employed some of the same devious techniques against those people. We’ve been able to reverse engineer some procedures and develop our own tactics to accomplish this goal.

In one such case we investigated, it turned out to be a snoopy neighbor.

He had gone through our client’s trash for several months and had gleaned bank account information from statements, as well as names of all family members, birthdates, pets names and a wealth of useful information.

He also used social media to fill in many blanks in his file. He then employed ruses on the telephone, primarily with the unsuspecting teenage children. He posed as a bank employee, delivery person, utility company person and others. He was able to compile passwords, social security numbers and other identifiers.

Because we don’t want to divulge all of the tricks of the trade, we’ll not get into some of the tactics he used and the procedures we employed to catch him.

Do’s and don’t.

Don’t discard any personal information in the trash or elsewhere.

Do acquire and use a shredder for anything with personal info or names of banks, etc. (Get a cross shredder not a straight ribbon-cutter type.) Meth heads and other nefarious types have been known to spend countless hours piecing together bank statements, etc.

Don’t provide anything but the basics on any social media. Birth dates, names of spouse, children, company where you work, club memberships, and even things like your alma mater can all be used to compile a file to use against you. (The list would be very long so use your imagination.)

Don’t answer questions on the telephone and instruct the other people in the household not to.

Don’t discard IT equipment and storage media, including PCs, servers, USB memory sticks, hard drives, mobile phones, etc. unless they have been sanitized. (Even then experts with the right programs may retrieve your information.)

Don’t allow strangers to “shoulder surf” when you write a check or use an ATM, etc.

Don’t use your Social Security number or last four digits. Use another number known only to you.

Don’t click on links in unsolicited emails.

Do use computer firewalls, anti virus, and anti spy ware.

The good news is that despite the media hype and the myriad companies claiming to combat ID theft your odds of being affected are very slim. Depending on whose statistics you believe you have only 0.5 to 2 percent chance of becoming a victim. Of course if it happens to you it can be devastating.

There are many good sources of information regarding identity theft on the web. You just have to decide what you’re willing to do to fulfill your comfort level.

Next column: The OJ case.

RW “Pete” Peterson has operated his investigative firm for 30-plus years. He can be reached at 760-443-0575;