A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

26 Secrets an Identity Thief Definitely Doesn’t Want You to Know

Watch out: These former identity thieves confess the tricks they use to scam you right under your nose.

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Syda Productions/Shutterstock

Watch your back

In line at the grocery store, I’ll hold my phone like I’m looking at the screen and snap your card as you’re using it. Next thing you know, I’m ordering things online—on your dime. If you lose your wallet, take these 10 steps to stop identity theft.

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We see when you pay your bills

That red flag tells the mail carrier—and me—that you have outgoing mail. And that can mean credit card numbers and checks I can reproduce.

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Sementsova Lesia/Shutterstock

Watch your bank statements

Check your bank and credit card balances at least once a week. I can do a lot of damage in the 30 days between statements.

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Always get cards with a chip

In Europe, all credit cards have an embedded chip and require a PIN, which makes them a lot harder to hack. Here, I can duplicate the magnetic stripe technology with a $50 machine. These password recovery questions are insanely easy to hack.

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Track your mail

If a bill doesn’t show up when it’s supposed to, don’t breathe a sigh of relief. Start to wonder if your mail has been stolen.

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Tear up important documents before you throw them away

That’s me driving through your neighborhood at 3 a.m. on trash day. I fill my trunk with bags of garbage from different houses, then sort later. Avoid these reasons that your password security may be weak.

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You throw away the darnedest things

Preapproved credit card applications, old bills, expired credit cards, checking account deposit slips, and crumpled-up job or loan applications, which have all your personal information. Here are the things in your home that could be spying on you.

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Check out ATMs before you use them

If you see something that looks like it doesn’t belong on the ATM or sticks out from the card slot, walk away. That’s the skimmer I attached to capture your card information and PIN.

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Opt out

Why don’t more of you call 888-5-OPTOUT to stop banks from sending you preapproved credit offers? You’re making it way too easy for me.

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Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Get a credit card with your photo on it

I use your credit cards all the time, and I never get asked for ID. A helpful hint: I’d never use a credit card with a picture on it. Here’s when to never use a credit card for payment.

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Kostenko Maxim/Shutterstock

I can pose as you

I can call the electric company, pose as you, and say, “Hey, I thought I paid this bill. I can’t remember—did I use my Visa or MasterCard? Can you read me back that number?” I have to be in character, but it’s unbelievable what they’ll tell me.

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Thanks for using your debit card instead of your credit card

Hackers are constantly breaking into retail databases, and debit cards give me direct access to your banking account.

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Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

Love that new credit card that showed up in your mailbox

If I can’t talk someone at your bank into activating it (and I usually can), I write down the number and put it back. After you’ve activated the card, I start using it. These are the signs your house is being watched by a burglar.

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My least-favorite credit card?

American Express, because it likes to ask me for your zip code.

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Alphonse Leong/Shutterstock

Your unlocked mailbox is a gold mine

I can steal your account numbers, use the convenience checks that come with your credit card statement, and send in pre-approved credit offers to get a card in your name. Stealing mail is easy. Sometimes, I act like I’m delivering flyers. Other times, I just stand there and riffle through it. If I don’t look suspicious, your neighbors just think I’m a friend picking up your mail. These are the safety tips that could save your home from a break-in.

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We work the old-fashioned way

Even with all the new technology, most of us still steal your information the old-fashioned way: by swiping your wallet or purse, going through your mail, or dumpster diving.

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I dig through dumpsters in broad daylight

If anyone asks (and no one does), I just say my girlfriend lost her ring, or that I may have thrown my keys away by mistake.

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There’s a lot of info in hospital dumpsters

One time I was on the run and needed a new identity so I went through a hospital dumpster and found a statement with a Puerto Rican social security number for a Manuel Rivera. For a good two years after that, I was Manuel Rivera. I had his name on my apartment, on my paychecks and, of course, on my credit cards. Beware these phone call scams.

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Never add your Social Security to things

Is your Social Security number on your driver’s license or your checks, or is it your account number for your health insurance? Dumb move.

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AOL customers, watch out

When I send out e-mails “phishing” for personal information by posing as a bank or online merchant, I often target AOL customers. They just seem less computer literate—and more likely (I hope) to fall for my schemes. Here’s how you can protect yourself online.

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I work in public

I never use my home computer to buy something with a credit card that’s not mine. That’s why you can often find me at the public library.

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Use the same ATM

If you use the same ATM every time, you’re a lot more likely to notice if something changes on the machine, like the skimmer I installed.

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Sometimes I pose as a salesman and go into a small office

After I make my pitch, I ask the secretary to make me a copy. Since most women leave their purses on the floor by their chairs, as soon as they leave the room, I grab their wallet. I also check the top and bottom right-hand drawers of their desks, where I often find company checks.

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How much is your information worth? 

I can buy stolen account information—your name, address, credit card number, and more—for $10 to $50 per account from hackers who advertise on more than a dozen black market web sites.

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Don’t keep your pin number in your wallet

Hey, thanks for writing your PIN number on that little slip of paper in your wallet. I feel like I just won the lottery.

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Don’t use unsecured Wi-Fi

Sure, it may be nice not to have to put in your password when you use an unsecured Wi-Fi connection. But know this: We have software that can scoop up all the data your computer transmits, including your passwords and other sensitive information.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest