Nearly 100 law enforcement officers last week got a firsthand look at how easily an identity thief can pick an electronic pocket. As they sat in a UNLV conference room, an expert in cybercrime used a $30 machine to intercept some of the information being sent from their smart phones.
Welcome to the dark side of the 21st century.
As technology has gotten more sophisticated, so have thieves. They have targeted computers, phones, ATMs, credit card machines and anything else that can carry credit card numbers or other personal information.
Identity theft is a terrible crime. Criminals can quickly create havoc, draining bank accounts, taking out loans and running up credit card debts. A victim can find his credit score destroyed in short order.
As Steve Kanigher reported Wednesday in the Las Vegas Sun, Nevada has long been a hotbed for identity theft. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Nevada was fifth in the nation for identity theft last year. There is a glimmer of good news in that — in 2005, the state was second in the nation.
Metro Police said from January through Nov. 13 this year, there were 2,063 cases, down from the 2,440 in that period in 2009. Metro Lt. Robert DuVall, head of the property crimes bureau, attributed that to increased public awareness, saying it shows "that we're on the right track as a community." He encouraged people to pay attention to their credit card statements and regularly check their credit reports.
Personal vigilance is important. People have to be careful in their daily lives as well, making sure they have updated security software on their computers. Thieves are on the cutting edge, using new technology to exploit security measures.
"It's absolutely an arms race," said Justin Feffer, an investigator for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. "You see vulnerabilities in software exploited by criminals. Then you see the software companies patch those vulnerabilities and then the criminals develop new ones. That's why you have to make sure everything is up-to-date and currently patched. What was good last year is by no means safe this year."
Of course, thieves will look for any opportunity to get information. As Kanigher's story noted, criminals will look through the garbage bins at hotels, doctors' offices and other businesses for documents that have personal data. Thieves also steal mail and checks.
The real treasure trove, though, exists in cyberspace because of the amount of information stored and constantly moving through our increasingly digital world. Mike Prusinski of LifeLock, a company that sells consumer security services, said that as consumers we've "brought a lot of this on ourselves."
"We've wanted a society of conveniences," he said. "We want to be able to just go up to a machine and place our credit card on it and swipe it through."
Of course the technology doesn't excuse thieves, but it does provide a wide avenue for them. It's good that law enforcement officers are staying current to combat cybercrime, but the best defense starts at home. Given the damage an identity thief can do with a little bit of information, it pays to be careful.