Nearly 100 law enforcement officers recently witnessed how easily an identity thief can steal electronic information. During a UNLV conference, a cybercrime expert used a $30 device to intercept data from their smartphones.

Welcome to the dark side of the 21st century.

As technology advances, so do the methods of thieves. They now target computers, phones, ATMs, credit card machines, and any device holding personal information.

Identity theft is a severe crime. Criminals can quickly wreak havoc by draining bank accounts, taking out loans, and racking up credit card debts. A victim's credit score can be ruined in no time.

As reported by Steve Kanigher in the Las Vegas Sun, Nevada has been a hotspot for identity theft. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Nevada ranked fifth in the nation for identity theft last year. This is an improvement from 2005 when it was second.

Metro Police reported 2,063 cases from January to November 13 this year, down from 2,440 during the same period in 2009. Metro Lt. Robert DuVall, head of the property crimes bureau, credited increased public awareness for the decline, saying it shows “we’re on the right track as a community.” He urged people to monitor their credit card statements and regularly check their credit reports.

Personal vigilance is crucial. Individuals must ensure their computers have updated security software. Thieves continuously use new technology to bypass security measures.

“It’s absolutely an arms race,” said Justin Feffer, an investigator for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. “Criminals exploit software vulnerabilities, which are then patched by companies, only for new vulnerabilities to be found. Keeping everything up-to-date is essential. What was secure last year is not safe today.”

Thieves seek any opportunity to gather information. As noted in Kanigher’s story, they often rummage through garbage bins at hotels, doctors' offices, and other businesses for documents containing personal data. They also steal mail and checks.

However, the most significant threat lies in cyberspace due to the vast amount of information stored and transmitted. Mike Prusinski of LifeLock, a company providing consumer security services, mentioned that we’ve “brought a lot of this on ourselves.”

“We’ve wanted a society of conveniences,” he said. “We want to just swipe our credit card on a machine and be done.”

Though technology does not excuse thieves, it offers them many opportunities. It's positive that law enforcement is keeping up with cybercrime trends, but the best defense starts at home. Given the damage identity thieves can do with minimal information, being cautious is essential.

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