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Identity Theft
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Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the United States. Criminals are using readily available personal information to steal billions of dollars, and make life miserable for hundreds of thousands of Americans. It's a crime that can be easy to commit, and very difficult to solve.

IT HAPPENS to an estimated 400,000 Americans a year, and it happened to Dave Feakes. Feakes runs an autobody shop in a small North Dakota town. About three years ago, he got a call from a South Dakota bank demanding payment for $9,000 in rubber checks -- checks this Dave Feakes had not written. So began a two year nightmare.

Feakes: He'd been to K-Marts and WalMarts and all these bigger stores and here we are Christmas shopping and trying to buy things and we get in a department store and there's people standing all around and they refuse your check and the kids are there and asking, "Why they don't take checks from us?" That's pretty humiliating. And people around you look at you like, "Boy, some kind of crook."

The dumpster in your alley may have enough information in it for any passerby to assume your identity.
Feakes spent hours talking on the phone and filling out paperwork, trying to convince unsympathetic creditors he was not responsible for the spending spree. The unpleasant experience turned unbelievable when Dave Feakes went to renew his driver's license.

Feakes:I told 'em I was Dave Feakes and somebody had used my driver's license, and they typed it into the computer and here came my driver's license with his picture on it. And she says, "You're not Dave Feakes, this guy is." We got into a little shuffle. It's hard to prove to somebody who don't know you who you are.

Feakes had to call in his local sheriff to vouch for his identity. He says local law enforcment took his case seriously, but few others did. Feakes says he faced hostility from credit agencies, and indifference from many law enforcement agencies, including an FBI agent he asked for help.

Feakes: We had the name, we had the area he was working in, we had copies of the checks, and he said, "Well that don't really matter, we got other things to do." So he really said point blank, "We don't care, you got your problems, we got ours."

Experts say law enforcement is often unwilling or unprepared to investigate identity theft. Craig Welken is FBI agent in charge in Fargo. He says no statistics are kept on identity theft. He says it's often seen as a paper crime not worth the effort and expense it takes to investigate.

Welken: The big problem is it's very difficult to find these people because they frequently change the identies they have very quickly. They may use your identity for a period of time and discarded it. So in a couple months, they've done a great deal of damage and discarded it and there's no further way to track them.

The man who stole Dave Feakes' identity and trust is a case in point. Allan Ray Rick served a short sentence for attempting to buy a new truck posing as Dave Feakes , but stole another identity within weeks of getting out of jail. Rick has used so many aliases, some law enforcement records don't even have the right information.

Preventing ID Theft:
Listen to FBI agent Craig Welken's tips for avoiding identity theft. (2:52)

Recognize how vulnerable you are to identity theft by reading our list of case files.

Rick is now in a federal prison after a recent conviction on bank fraud charges.

Some identity thieves use high-tech chicanery to get personal information from cyberspace, but experts say most, like Allan Rick, use decidedly low tech methods.

To steal Dave Feakes' identity, he simply called the state of North Dakota and bought a copy of Feakes' birth certificate, something easily done in most states. Beth Givens, director of the National Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, says it's too easy to get such a critical document.

Givens: You know once you have somebody's birth certificate, you can get a driver's license, then you can go get a duplicate Social Security number and you've got a full set of documents and you're off and running.

By next year Minnesota will require anyone asking for a duplicate birth certificate to prove they have a valid reason for wanting the document. Beth Givens says that will help stymie some criminals, but do nothing to stop the most common kind of identity theft.

Most often, identity theft is as simple as dumpster diving. The credit industry sends out millions of unsolicited credit card applications every year. Many times, people simply throw them in the trash without even ripping them in half. A quick look in a dumpster behind a Moorhead apartment building illustrates just how easy it is to find these documents.

Were I of a criminal mind, I could take this pre-approved credit card application, tossed in the trash without a second thought, and be off on a spending spree. The unsuspecting victim would likely not know about the fraud for months, until they discovered their credit was ruined. This application will go back into the trash, perhaps for someone else to find.

And this is only one of the treasures that can come from dumpster diving. Businesses often discard credit-card receipts without shredding them. Banks and brokers sometimes throw out documents with Social Security numbers and account information.

Statistics on identity theft are hard to come by since law enforcemnt doesn't track the crime and the credit industry gives out little information. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse Director Beth Givens says the credit industry doesn't want people to know how common the crime is, because it fears government regulation that might slow the flow of easy credit. Givens estimates identity thieves steal about $4 billion a year. She says for the credit industry it's a cost of doing business.

Givens: So they're writing if off. What's happening is they are then increasing the rates for credit and what's ultimately happening, the cost of goods is increased because of the fees merchants have to pay to credit-card companies. So we're the ones who are paying in the end.

There is a growing debate about how to protect personal information. Some advocate new laws to restrict access to public records like birth certificates. Others argue such records should remain public.

New Federal laws make it easier to punish identity thieves. And about 15 states, including North Dakota, have recently passed laws making identity theft a crime.

But experts agree, under current law consumers bear most of the responsibility for keeping personal information private. That means consumers must be careful about giving out Social Security and credit-card numbers, and need to destroy documents before they go in the trash. Consumers should also insist businesses they deal with do the same. There may be no way to stop a determined identity thief, but common sense may deter the opportunistic criminal looking for an easy score.