Linda Foley’s employer was a trusted friend. She would have remained one if Foley’s credit card company had not called to ask about an address change in 1997. That’s when Foley learned her employer had taken advantage of her social security number and other private information, making Foley a victim of identity theft.
“My employer abused her position of authority,” Foley said. “She applied for credit cards and a cell phone. I only found out when they wanted to confirm my new address.”
Foley’s experience with identity theft had such an impact that she is now the executive director for the Identity Theft Resource Center, a non-profit agency in San Diego, Calif. The center acts as a victims’ advocacy group for identity theft, providing links to local support centers and working with legislators to enact tougher laws against identity theft.
“We tend to be the voice of victims,” Foley said. “But we wanted it to be a resource center for everyone.”
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft is currently the fastest growing crime in the United States. The FTC estimates that 700,000 people in the U.S. were victims of identity theft in 2000. Thieves trying to cash in under unsuspecting people’s names often use a social security number as a key to obtaining more information. They apply for credit cards, cellular phones, bank accounts and even mortgages with someone else’s private information. As identity theft becomes more common, so do horror stories of victims who have to deal with destroyed credit and a sense of violation.
In one Florida case, David Prouty and Nicole Conde were arrested in January 2001 for committing credit card fraud. They tapped into computer networks of Florida restaurants and scammed more than $7 million. Prouty and Conde have since been indicted by a federal grand jury.
Not all cases of identity theft are so complex. Thieves can obtain social security numbers from stolen purses or wallets, unscrupulous marketers or even garbage in the dumpster.
Foley said there are several groups that are more vulnerable to identity theft, including people in the military and the elderly.
“College students often have to use their social security number as ID,” she said. This is also why military personnel and the elderly are susceptible.
Foley said many students are not even aware they are at high risk of someone gaining access to their social security number.Graduate student Brian Sanders said he never worried about identity theft occurring through the university.
“I was aware of it, but I never really thought of it being a problem at school,” Sanders said. “I don’t readily give out my social security number for just anything, but I do think about it when I fill out test answer sheets.”
Foley said she has heard of incidents in which university databases were infiltrated, allowing access to thousands of students’ social security numbers.
“Common sense says the more exposure a person’s social security number is given, the greater the chance it will be abused,” Foley said. “The fact is, all universities have to do is add a field in their system and issue students a random access number as their identification.”
Foley said one reason the social security identification system persists at universities is because of the increase in grants and scholarships.
“With all of the students receiving federal and state grants, they want to be able to track students,” she said.
Although some institutions, such as universities, may favor keeping the social security number system of identification, other groups say different policies and perhaps stricter laws are needed to protect the public.
A Florida grand jury recently recommended all records should remain closed to the public unless there is a specific reason to open them. The suggestion opposes the current Florida Sunshine Law, in which all records are open.
The recommendation was made as a way to help fight identity theft. As crime statistics and monetary losses have increased, law enforcement officials have gotten more serious about increasing public awareness about this fast-growing crime.
Allen Fetters, president of the Mid-Florida Society of Professional Journalists, said the change could be detrimental, cutting off both the media and the public’s way of discovering abuses of government power.
“It would hinder our job as government watchdogs,” Fetters said. “I think this stems from the Dale Earnhardt case, and Sept. 11. What we’re seeing now is using the whole patriotism thing to do what people in Tallahassee have wanted to do for a long time,” she said.
Barbara K. Petersen, associate professor for mass communication law, said although identity theft is a serious concern, there is another side to the issue.
“The question is whether the fear of identity theft is important enough to override Florida citizens’ right to know how the government operates,” Petersen said. “There might be reason to take precaution, but not so much that we would shut access to public records, which is a Florida constitutional right.”
Foley said some changes need to be made anyway.
“There are still seven states that have not declared identity theft against the law, including New York, which is one of the top five states where identity theft occurs,” she said.
There are precautions that everyone should take. Foley advises shredding documents that contain social security numbers, bank account numbers or credit card information before throwing them away. Don’t automatically throw away unopened credit card applications. They could contain personal information. Foley said by calling (888) 5OPT- OUT, you can drastically reduce the number of pre-approved credit applications sent to you.
Another simple way to lessen your risk of identity theft is to guard your social security number. USF and many other universities use social security numbers to identify students, but that doesn’t mean you need to write it down everywhere. Avoid putting it on assignments for class or attendance sheets if possible. Also, try not to give your number out to marketers.The Internet also provides a way for thieves to gain access to your personal information.
“Anytime a computer is linked to the Internet, it’s open to the world,” Foley said.
To minimize prying eyes from tracking you, visit for security services. While high-tech options are available to buy, ZoneAlarm also offers a free download for home and non-profit use.
If the worst happens and you do become an identity theft victim, there are several steps to take immediately. First, contact the three major credit bureaus to put a fraud alert on your credit rating. It will indicate to anyone reading your report that you have been victimized. Next, contact the police to file a report.
Foley has spoken to many victims of identity theft through the Identity Theft Resource Center, but being a victim herself gives her a heightened sense of determination to help those who have been affected. In her case, Foley’s former employer initially received five years probation, but was later caught opening bank accounts with stolen names. Her violation landed her in jail for 240 days.Foley said she felt no satisfaction at the trial.
“How could I feel satisfied when someone was going to jail?” she said. “It took me a long time to accept that I didn’t do anything to her, the police and the judge didn’t do anything to her. She did it to herself.”
- Contact Suzanne Soliman at email@example.com.