In the last year alone, 9.3 million adults were victims, according to a recent report by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy & Research. It means that every day, 25,000 victims find their names have been used to pay for things they’ve never bought.

To expose this scandal as a warning to Q readers, reporter GERALD SHAW chose a random woman from a newsgroup and gave himself just 90 minutes to find out what he could about her. Here are his shocking findings:

To show how much info people scatter carelessly around, I picked a name at random from an online chat room. In 90 minutes, I knew more than enough to take over the woman’s life and steal her identity. I have renamed her Joan. I found her by looking for scuba diving chat rooms on a popular net search engine.

Joan has plenty to say, giving her email address and middle initial. There are hints that she probably lives in Virginia. Next, we enter her full name and “Virginia” into the search engine, and now we know the town she lives in. A link to local newspaper cuttings reveals she’s active in gay rights. It includes a photo of Joan with her partner, her partner’s two children, both under 10, and their dog. Another link takes us to an online bookstore, where she has posted two pages of reviews and lists her interests.

At an online phone directory, we punch in Joan’s name, town and state, and up comes her address and phone number. We feed the address into the online website for her city’s real estate tax assessor, and discover that since 2001, she has lived in a singlefamily home built in 1910.

Her house is assessed for property taxes at $85,000. She paid $100,000 for it two years ago.

We turn to a common online library which has millions of clippings. A full-time con artist would probably take out an annual subscription to it, costing from $4,500 up.

It pads out our knowledge of Joan and her family, including her age, 44, and where she works.

For $10 at an online data site, we get a list of Joan’s previous homes.

Another $49 gives us a report listing relatives, neighbors and a satellite photo of her home. It tells us she has no criminal record.

We could easily use the Internet to track down her social security number. We can then use that essential piece of ID to apply for more credit in her name, run up huge amounts of debt, and not pay the bills. That means a bad credit rating and annoying calls from creditors.


  • Check your credit reports annually from all three credit reporting agencies.
  • Try not to carry your Social Security card . and don’t put your SSN or driver’s license number on checks.
  • Never provide information to phone