For many, the phrase "identity theft" automatically invokes images of distant hackers and shady scam artists stealing information anonymously and racking up thousands of dollars in bills.
While that happens in Lexington regularly, residents are statistically more likely to be victimized by a friend or relative than someone they have never met, police said. About 70 percent of the identity theft cases handled by Lexington police detective Wayne Thornton involve someone who stole the identity of a friend, coworker or family member, he said.
"The overwhelming majority of my cases are very mundane, small-dollar amount cases," said Thornton, who works on financial crimes for Lexington police. "It's typically a brother, a sister, a cousin, father or son, and they want to get cable."
Utilities such as water and electricity, as well as necessities such as cars and home repairs, also prevalent expenses. In one recent case, a Lexington woman allegedly used her sister's identifiers to buy new doors for her home on credit, skipping on the bill with about $3,000 left to pay.
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But for all the routine cases that come across his desk, Thornton occasionally gets one that's more of a head-scratcher and more in line with the stereotypical notion of anonymous identity theft.
Identity thieves can do any number of things with stolen information, but most of the time it is used to buy goods on credit. Family members who steal identifying information typically intend to "borrow" their relative's credit score and pay off bills themselves; anonymous thieves usually have no such good intentions, buying high-dollar items and saddling the victim with the bill.
Nationwide, the problem has grown recently. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 8.6 million households had at least one person who experienced identity theft in 2010, an increase from 6.4 million households in 2005.
Identity theft is growing, in part because it is easy to do, police said. Banks, employers, even cellphone companies, all typically have information on file that could be used to open a credit account.
"Think of all the places you have to give your Social Security number," Thornton said.
In one recent case, a manager at a store in Fayette Mall stole names, addresses, birth dates and Social Security numbers from 27 people who filled out employment applications.
"The store had no policy on controlling those forms, and they were basically in a shoebox sitting in the corner of a manager's office where anybody and everybody had access to them," Thornton said.
The manager used information to open several credit cards before he was caught.
Like most crime trends, types of identity theft ebb and flow. Several years ago, Lexington police were inundated with reports that illegal immigrants had used other people's identity to get employment. Those types of reports have tapered off during the past few years, Thornton said, replaced by an increase in reports of fraudulent tax returns.
In one recent example, a woman who worked at a call center wrote down information from callers, who had to give her their personal information to be verified, detective Mike Helsby said.
"As they would call in, she would scribble it down on a piece of paper," he said. She would then give the information to her boyfriend, who filed eight fraudulent tax returns online, pocketing the refund money, before he was arrested.
The trend is troublesome because once the IRS is alerted that the tax return is fraudulent, files are sealed and documents are not given to either the victim or local police departments.