Consumer Law

Ways Personal Information is Stolen

All forms of identity theft begin with the theft of personal information but there are a variety of methods used by skilled thieves to gain access to that information. Be on the lookout for these techniques used to obtain information. Also, if you feel uncomfortable about giving personal information in a situation, follow your instincts You can't go wrong being overly cautious.

Below are some of the techniques used by identity thieves to obtain personal information or information related to personal financial accounts:

Plain Old-fashioned Stealing

Wallets, purses, open bags and more are the usual sources for theft of identification cards, bank information, credit cards, and health care cards. Carry a purse that has a zipper or can be carried close to your body so you can feel if it's been jostled. Wallets alone are difficult due to their small size. Maybe the back pocket isnt' the best place to carry it. Keep your personal items safe at work, too. Put purses in drawers, locked if possible, and don't leave wallets out on the desk in plain view.

If you've just taken money from the ATM, put it in your wallet in the bank. Don't wait until going outside. You may be pushed and drop the money or others may see that you've just been to the bank and target you. The less they see, the better off you are. Be sure your bank's ATM has a video camera well.

Taking Your Mail

It's a federal offense to tamper with someone else's mail, but many thieves will take the mail out of your mailbox hoping for credit card offers, new credit cards sent in the mail and other documents that are easily forgeable. Even having checks sent to your home can be a problem.

In addition, change of address forms found in your mail can be used to redirect checks or other sensitive materials usually received at your residence.

Dumpster Diving

Identity thieves also rummage through trash to get personal data. This practice is known as "dumpster diving." The thieves are usually looking for credit receipts, preapproval forms for credit cards, letters from official government agencies that contain Social Security numbers and addresses or bills with personal information.

Be sure to shred or tear up credit card offers and the credit "checks" some companies send you as incentives to transfer balances or make purchases with. After looking at receipts, rip them up before discarding. Some people go so far as to tear off address labels of magazines when sending them to the recycling bins.


Thieves use small credit card readers to steal the information that is on a card's magnetic strip. The card information is copied into a file within the memory of the skimmer. The credit card numbers are then sold or used to create fake credit cards. Skimming can easily occur in restaurants and stores where people turn their credit cards over to another person. Skimming devices can also be placed over the normal card reader on an ATM to steal data when a person tries to withdraw money.

Don't let your credit card out of your sight for a long time period. It's best if you don't turn it over to the clerk, too. There's a new trend that credit card machines can be brought to your table rather than letting the server take it from you. Some retail businesses are also changing the way they process orders.

Shoulder Surfing

An identity thief may peer over a person's shoulder to see the numbers on credit cards and memorize the digits in a split second. This is done either when the person takes out their credit card and is waiting to pay for their merchandise or after payment has been made and the person is waiting to sign the credit card receipt.


Pfishing starts with an e-mail message that's designed to look like an official message from a bank or trusted company. It contains a request for personal information or a link that takes the recipient to a phony Web site. The e-mail claims that the company is having a problem with the person's account and that they need to verify or update account information. The bogus Web site urges the visitor to provide confidential information, such as a SSN, account numbers, passwords and so forth. Any data entered goes straight to an identity thief.

There have been a lot of phishing scams like this using eBay's name. Don't click on a link unless you know where it's from. Check this site for more scams.


Pharmers also use phony Web sites and theft of confidential information to perpetrate online scams, but they don't rely on enticing their victims to click on a link in fake e-mail messages. Pharming re-directs victims to a phony Web site even if they type the correct Web address into their Web browser. The identical site tricks users into entering their names and passwords into the database on the fake site for later use by the thieves.


Pretexting obtains personal information, such as SSNs, telephone records, bank or credit card numbers or other information under false circumstances. Many different tactics to get personal information such as claiming they're from a survey firm asking you a few questions. Pretexters may also claim to represent banks, government agencies, local law enforcement agencies, Internet Service Provides (ISPs) and many others.

If your gut instinct makes you think this is a scam, it is or even if it isn't, do not give out personal information. True survey firms won't ask for such information. If you feel uncomfortable saying "No" upfront, try to get their number to call them back. Usually they'll give some excuse why they can't and hang up.

Wireless Hacking

Using unprotected wireless networks at home and in public places can be hazardous to your personal information. These networks can be tapped into using pretty basic technology and hackers are very adept at accessing personal information this way.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How do I regain control of my bank accounts and credit history?
  • How do I place a fraud alert on my credit file?
  • How do I close tampered or fraudulent accounts?
  • How do I file a police report?
  • How do I file a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint?
  • I have been arrested for a crime I didn't commit and I believe the crime was committed by someone who stole my identity?
Have a identity theft question?
Get answers from local attorneys.
It's free and easy.
Ask a Lawyer

Get Professional Help

Find a Identity Theft lawyer
Practice Area:
Zip Code:
How It Works
  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys

Talk to an attorney

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you