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Understanding Identity Theft


Financial records of nearly 700,000 customers may have been stolen by bank employees and sold to collection agencies. The banks involved are Wachovia, Bank of America, PNC Bank of Pittsburgh and Commerce Bank of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Seven bank workers were among those charged last month in the theft of financial records. This latest breach of security on personal information follows similar thefts at ChoicePoint, Time Warner and LexisNexis. Since February, millions of Social Security numbers, bank account profiles and driver's license numbers have been stolen. As to where that information goes, who takes it and how it's used, we turn to Kevin Barrows. He's a former special agent at the FBI who helped solve one of the country's biggest identity theft schemes in 2002.

Good morning.

Mr. KEVIN BARROWS (Former FBI Agent): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin by speaking just briefly about this case that you solved. Can you give us the short version of that?

Mr. BARROWS: Sure. Financial institutions, one of which was Ford Motor Credit in certain locations, came to realize that someone was apparently using their subscriber code and password to go and access credit reports. It ended up that there was an insider at a software company, the company that provides the interface between the financial institutions and these credit-reporting agencies, who left the company, but prior to leaving, stole a number of subscriber codes and passwords for all these financial institutions. He then teamed up with a co-conspirator, and they were--bought, Social Security numbers, names and so forth, from all these street criminals. And they ran their credit reports for $60 a report, and they split the money among--between them.

MONTAGNE: Well, it sounds like just from this one case that it would be hard for a lone thief to pull one of these off, that you need somebody on the inside, maybe. You need at least a couple of people. Is that the case?

Mr. BARROWS: Well, it is, and certainly was in my case. This case incorporated all the various types of identity theft, and when I say types, I mean, there's the inside threat, which is there's someone well placed inside a company that's dispensing this personal information. There's also, of course, the low-level method, which is--you've heard of Dumpster diving and people going through mailboxes and that kind of thing. And then there's high-tech, which we consider to be computer-related, sort of somebody hacking into a computer.

MONTAGNE: And then, when stealing information, what bits of information are the most valuable?

Mr. BARROWS: Well, it's always the Social Security number. That will always be the most valuable. From there, in fact, maybe even a greater piece of information is the credit report, because the credit report, obviously, not only gives a Social Security number and personal information about the individual, but it also goes on to indicate where the person has their holdings, whether they have home equity loans, and effectively, they can obtain driver's licenses from that and then they can get open bank accounts. And, of course, they can go into any electronic store and open up an instant credit and walk out with a plasma television. I mean, the ways in which they can use this information is virtually endless.

MONTAGNE: It seems like there's a sense that identity theft is the perfect crime.

Mr. BARROWS: Yes. And in many ways, that's absolutely true, and that is because if the identity thief is good at what he or she does, all roads will lead back to the victim. In sort of off-shoot cases to this large case we had discussed, there were several instances where people would call and say, `I've been victimized. Here's the person's phone number,' followed it back to that victim. I went to a PO box where I knew mail was sent. It was in the name of the victim. And that is the challenge, often, for law enforcement.

MONTAGNE: Kevin Barrows, thank you very much.

Mr. BARROWS: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Kevin Barrows is a former FBI agent. He is currently a principal in Renaissance Associates, a private company that investigates corporate fraud and computer crimes.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.