Identity theft: A how-to

Apr 062010
Authors: Johnathan Kastner

Naturally, I am referring to how to avoid identity theft. If you are like me, you thought that identity theft was some kind of futuristic cloning crime, but sadly, this is not the case. Identity theft is a crime that students are particularly vulnerable to. College is all about finding yourself, and it would be a shame if someone stole that.

Identity theft is when someone pretends to be you using documentation or information, and uses your identity to get credit cards, cell phones and click “Like” on all your friends’ most depressing status updates on Facebook.

Identity thieves are a cunning lot, and there’s not a lot you can do to avoid becoming a victim. Still, if you are determined to remove from these criminals their only livelihood, there are some ways you can attempt to defend yourself.

A lot of people picture identity thieves as a smooth mass of super-criminals, faces lit by dozens of computer monitors as they sail the digital sea plundering e-booty, choosing to use their amazing skills only for a life of crime. While this is largely true, some people claim they just steal garbage.

See, credit card companies and utility bills and university mail all contain information about you. You then throw this information away and it goes outside and put it where anyone can get it. Then they (the criminals) take it (the information). A fiendish plan!

There’s basically no way to stop this. You could get a shredder, or shred the paper by hand, but all a criminal would have to do is find each piece in the mountain of garbage and painstakingly reassemble it. No, your best bet is to just keep all your trash indoors, or flush it piece-by-piece.

Another way identity thieves strike is with a technique known as “phishing.” Spelled with a new-age “ph,” phishing is another attack against which we are all helpless. Let’s run a scenario.

You’re about to walk into your bank, when you notice that the bank’s location has moved to your front yard, and instead of being a red brick building, it is now a cardboard box with the word, “BANK” on it. Happy at this newfound convenience, you greet the teller, a man who identifies himself as, “George Washington American.”

Comforted by what is clearly an average American name, you take out your credit card. He also asks you for your driver’s license, social security number and car keys and remembering that they don’t give cardboard boxes to just anyone, you hand those over too.

Did you see anything wrong with that story? That’s right, you didn’t tell George that your car is a stick-shift. He might have trouble getting it out of the lot.

Phishing is very much like the above story, only it takes place entirely in cyberspace. A Web site or e-mail will direct you to a place that looks like your bank’s webpage and you put in your personal information. Before you know it, you are the proud owner of 16 new hot-tubs.

The only defense is discretion in whom you give your information to. But this is clearly impractical, as there’s no way to really tell the red brick buildings from the cardboard huts.

Conventional methods work, too. Keep in mind that if your wallet is stolen, it contains whatever personal information you carry around with you, and that your identity could be in danger, too. If you ever cannot find your wallet for more than five minutes, immediately cancel all your credit cards and flee to Mexico.

Of course, the best defense is what’s called the “pack” defense. See, there are a lot of people that could be victims of identity theft, and only so many thieves. So only a few people will be victimized out of the herd, and they’ll be the ones the thieves manage to catch.

So long as the thieves stay fed, the rest of us stay safe. But I can assure you, that if you follow my advice to the letter, your friends and family should be perfectly safe.

Johnathan Kastner is a senior Computer Science major. His column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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