Identity theft is on rise and underreported, police learn

A device that can be used to steal radio-frequency tags from credit cards was shown with a fake card at a seminar Tuesday for Kentucky law enforcement professionals.
A device that can be used to steal radio-frequency tags from credit cards was shown with a fake card at a seminar Tuesday for Kentucky law enforcement professionals.

Take out your credit or debit card: Does it display a WiFi icon, which looks like the volume signal on your sound system? A bit of text that says something like "PayWave"? Congratulations: You're now prime identity-theft bait.

A scam artist armed with a pocket-size card reader can lift the card numbers from your wallet or purse without even touching you, thanks to the radio-frequency identification chip in your card.

About 40 Kentucky law enforcement professionals spent Tuesday learning about such new frontiers in identity theft at a Lexington seminar sponsored by the FBI/Law Enforcement Executive Development Association and Lifelock, an identity-theft protection company.

Lifelock senior vice president Mike Prusinski said the company doesn't try to sell its product in helping stage the seminars; rather, he said, Lifelock benefits from increased awareness of the varied forms of identity theft as they evolve — in some cases, quickly.

"Lawmakers need to understand the value of stiffer laws," said identity-theft trainer Carol Frederick, a special agent supervisor with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "Businesses ... could maybe stop handing out credit cards like blackjack dealers."

She said that specialized training is needed for law enforcement to spot the tools used by identity thieves, which she said are "easily recognizable and easy to conceal."

About the WiFi cards, Prusinski has a couple of solutions: You can ask your bank to replace the card with a regular one with just a standard magnetic strip. Or you can cook the card in the microwave for three or four seconds, which should disable the WiFi chip but leave the magnetic strip intact.

Then there are the standard identity-theft schemes, known by most, but apparently not all, consumers:

■ The "Nigerian scam," in which criminals extract credit card or bank information from unsuspecting people who think they are buying goods, supporting charities or have won a prize or cash. An example is a notorious spam email purportedly from an exiled Nigerian prince asking for your bank information. Scamming can extend to shopping online, in which an unscrupulous employee can lift financial information.

■ The double-dipping restaurant server who carries a portable card reader to copy your credit card information while processing your check.

■ The "skimmer" scam, in which your data is copied by an add-on device on something such as a self-serve gas pump or, worse still, by a device embedded into the gas pump itself by an attendant who is in on the scam.

Such schemes can "remember" information about the customer's credit card long after he or she has driven off.

In one example used during the seminar Tuesday, scammers in Las Vegas put an entire false front on an ATM machine, which would tell the customers that the machine was out of service — but only after he or she had inserted a card. The scammers would later remove the false front, complete with all the card information from disappointed customers, who had simply moved on to another ATM.

From law enforcement's point of view, there's another problem with identity theft: It is underreported.

If your bank or credit card company "makes you whole" by restoring most of your loss, then you are left with the option of whether to report the identity theft to the police.

Frederick said identity-theft victims should report the violations. Such reports might help police locate the identity thieves, head off additional theft schemes or make vital links with other identity-theft technology as it evolves. Reporting identity theft to the police allows them to get more resources and make more arrests, Prusinski said.

"This crime is drastically underreported," he said. "Victims do not know what to do once they become victims."

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