we look at two identity-related threats of growing concern in the Information Age: identity fraud and shadow identities
Most of us spend a good deal of time, consciously or unconsciously, building a good reputation. We strive to make our credit card and automobile loan payments on time, we work hard to earn passing marks in our college courses, and we obey the laws to avoid marring our records. With all the hard work that we invest in building and maintaining our reputations, it seems almost inconceivable that someone could come along and wipe that out with as little information as our credit card or Social Security number. However, your reputation can be grievously injured if a criminal targets you for identity fraud.
Identity fraud occurs when an individual acquires personal information that allows him or her to impersonate you online or in real life and make purchases or commit crimes in your name. Armed with as little information as your name and nine-digit Social Security number, criminals can steal your identity and misrepresent you in online forums and in real life. It happened to Kenneth Morse of New York. After Morse disclosed his name and Social Security number in an online forum, someone began purchasing sport utility vehicles in New Jersey in his name (Sandberg, 1999). Although the culprit was stopped as he attempted to make his third vehicle purchase, Morse had months of letter writing and phone calls ahead of him as he worked to convince creditors that he was not the “Kenneth Morse” who made the inappropriate purchases.
Although your Social Security number is a particularly potent piece of personal information that criminals can use to impersonate you, it is by no means the only piece of information that they can use to their benefit and your detriment. Depending on what information on you they might already have, the additional disclosure of your credit card number, its expiration date, your date of birth, or your mother’s maiden name may be all they need to misrepresent you. One of the more troubling instances of identity fraud occurred when a handful of computer help-desk employees supplied a whole ring of identity counterfeiters with people’s personal information. After data collecting from more than 30,000 actual clients, the technicians sold the senstive personal information to a number of con artists, who in turn opened bogus accounts with other creditors and ran up fantastic charges.
Passwords are also especially vulnerable pieces of information in online settings. A criminal equipped with your password could use your Internet account to send messages that you would never consider issuing.
A particularly chilling case of identity fraud occurred when a northern California
woman who had never even logged on discovered that she was the target of a
stalker who was setting her up for disaster. Her alleged stalker, a man to whom she
had been introduced by friends and had then rebuffed when he became too intense
about developing a relationship, had sent out alarming messages in her name. The
stalker, masquerading as the woman, issued a number of statements suggesting that
she was interested in having a rape fantasy fulfilled. More than this, the impersonator
provided contact information and a schedule of the woman’s daily activities to
help. After one of the recipients of this e-mail contacted her by telephone, the woman
turned to the police and they began to investigate the source of her alter ego. Ultimately,
her former acquaintance was arrested, but the fear that this stalker caused
through his intimidation complicated her life immeasurably