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Six Common Methods That Thieves Use to Steal Your Identity

Chris has a master's degree in engineering and uses his knowledge to write about a variety of topics from an analytical perspective.

Each year more than 9 million people fall victim to some form of identity theft. Chances are pretty good that is has already happened to you or someone you know. ID theft can happen to anyone, even if they believe that they are taking all the normal precautions to protect themselves. Knowing the common methods that these criminals use to illegally obtain your information can help prevent you from becoming a victim. So just how do these cowardly criminals steal your identity? Here are the six most common ways that your identity can be stolen.

Card Skimming

This method involves the use of a specially made machine that "skims" the magnetic surface on your credit and debit cards. The skimmer stores your credit card number (and sometimes your PIN) which is later used to make illegal purchases. Some low tech skimming devices employ a camera to record your PIN as well. Thieves are coming up with very creative ways to steal your information using this method. Skimming devices can be attached to gas pumps, ATMs, and even the card readers at your local grocery store. If you are not paying attention, you could unknowingly insert your card into a modified device. In addition to this, thieves have even been caught publicly placed fake ATMs!

Tips to avoid being skimmed:

  • Pay attention to where you stick your credit and debit cards
  • Don't use ATMs or card reads that appear to have been tampered with
  • Don't trust any ATM or card reader (even if it is in a highly populated area)
  • Get into the habit of covering your hand when you enter your PIN


Phishing occurs when scam artists attempt to obtain your personal information by pretending that they are from your bank or credit card company. Sometimes they can even pretend to be one of your utility providers as well. Phishing can occur with fake phone calls, unsolicited spam emails, or even fake billing documents mailed to your house. Some of the most creative criminals have created fake websites (called spoofs) that encourage unsuspecting victims to enter their personal information.

Tips to avoid being phished:

  • Never trust a caller who claims to need your personal information
  • Don't click on links in unsolicited or spam email
  • Ensure that the website you are using is actually the real website
  • Pay attention to the documents you get in the mail

Redirecting Your Mail

Simply by filing a change of address form with the USPS, a thief can redirect your mail to another location. Here, the criminal can read your mail and gather plenty of information that they can use to cause you harm. This low-tech form of ID theft is actually fairly common. If a thief files the proper forms when you go a long vacation, you could end up coming home to a huge mess.

Tips to avoid address changing thieves:

  • Pay attention to your mail and know when sensitive documents are supposed to arrive
  • Consider paying your bills online instead of writing checks
  • Don't tell strangers of your vacation plans (don't post your plans online either)


Hacking occurs when criminals successfully guess or decipher your passwords, security questions, and/or PINs. Many hackers use social networking sites like mySpace and FaceBook to obtain information about you that can be used to answer security questions. Simple or obvious passwords can also be cracked by using many of the information already publicly available on these sites as well.

Tips to avoid being hacked:

  • Use strong passwords
  • Change your passwords often
  • Use privacy controls on all social networking sites
  • Don't unnecessarily give out personal information over any medium

Dumpster Diving

Would you believe that some identity thieves love to dig through your trash? "One man's trash is another man's treasure," is the old saying right? Well in this case, your personal information is gold to these thieves. By going through your trash they can find credit card applications, tax documents, and even checking and savings account information.

Tips to avoid dumpster diving thieves:

  • Shred your personal documents before discarding them
  • Don't leave trash cans out longer than necessary
  • Consider paying your bills online instead of writing checks


Stealing used to be the main way that thieves obtained your personal information prior to the existence of the internet. Even so, it still happens frequently and can have devastating results. Criminals can steal your purse, wallet, and even your mail and use it steal your identity.

Tips to avoid having your personal information physically stolen:

  • Consider getting a post office box or a locking mail box
  • Don't leave personal information and documents lying around
  • Know where your wallet or purse is at all times (and keep it close by you)
  • Pay attention to your surroundings

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: What do thieves use to open padlocks?

Answer: Padlocks are actually very easy to break into and should only be used as a deterrent. I would not consider a padlock as thief-proof and would highly recommend using secondary and even tertiary methods in addition to padlocks for protecting your belongings. Here are some methods/ways that I know thieves have used to break through padlocks:

1) Bolt Cutters - Most padlocks are easy to open with simple bolt cutters.

2) Saws/Rotary Tools - Any metal cutting tools can open padlocks very quickly. Even high-quality locks can be opened with these tools fairly easily.

3) Plasma Cutter - Simply melt the lock away.

4) Lock Picks - This usually requires some skill and time. However, thieves can easily open padlocks with these specialty tools in a matter of moments.

5) Fake Keys - Thieves can use aluminum from soda cans or even hard plastic to make a "fake key" that can be used to "bump" the lock open. I've seen people on Youtube open locks with this method in less than 5 seconds.

6) Key Bypasses - With this method thieves take aluminum from soda cans or even something like a safety pin to insert into the top of the lock to try and force it to pop open. I've also seen people on Youtube use this method to open a lock very quickly.

There are probably dozens of other methods for opening locks. As you can see, padlocks are not very secure.


Christopher Wanamaker (author) from Arizona on July 20, 2012:

Rebecca2904 - Glad to hear that you didn't become a victim yourself. I agree that people less familiar with technology are more likely to be victimized. It's such a tragedy in our society.

Rebecca on July 20, 2012:

Great advice! I think young people who have grown up with technology are aware and act on these precautions without even knowing they do, but for older people who aren't as comfortable with technology this information could be a real life saver. I've received a ton of e-mails recently claiming to be from banks asking me to confirm my details or else my account will be closed - most from banks I don't even have an account with! Unfortunately the first one was supposedly from my bank, but I had the sense to walk to the store to confirm whether it was legitimate or not before acting on it.

Allen Douglas from Midwest USA on March 04, 2012:

Good advice. This is a problem. I use one of the identity theft notification services and it has been a real eye opener.

Christopher Wanamaker (author) from Arizona on December 14, 2011:

JEff_McRitchie - Yes it is indeed Scary. The threat of ID theft makes life difficult in general.

Jeff_McRitchie on December 14, 2011:

Excellent Hub. Very informative and kinda scary too, seeing as there are so many ways one's identity can be stolen. Voted up.

Christopher Wanamaker (author) from Arizona on October 21, 2011:

MemphisYankee - Thanks for stopping by!

Christopher Wanamaker (author) from Arizona on October 21, 2011:

Rock_nj - Sorry to hear about that. It actually happened to me as well. These days I take extra precautions and have set up fraud alerts with my creditors. Thanks for your advice on the monitoring service as well. I am glad to see that it works well for you as I haven't met anyone yet that actually used one.

Christopher Wanamaker (author) from Arizona on October 21, 2011:

Larry - Thank you very much!

Phoebe Lee from Tennessee on October 21, 2011:

Useful hub. Voted up! Thanks!

John Coviello from New Jersey on October 21, 2011:

A good Hub. I speak from experience. A roommate of mine, who I did not really know (just lived with him) went into my bedroom and took some unlocked identifying documents from me years ago, and then went out and got a driver's license using my info. Luckily, it did not go past that. Be careful to keep your documents locked up.

Also, I think it's a bad idea to let the whole world know your birthdate through sites like Facebook. Even if you only share your info with friends, who knows who has access to their Facebook accounts? There is a lot of information on the Internet that can be used be identy thieves.

Use an Identity Theft monitoring service. I use one that notifies me the same day (or the next day) when someone tries to get credit using my SS number. I haven't had a problem so far, but I do get notified when I open a new line of credit, so I know it is working. There are more sophisticated identity protection services out there that monitor a lot more things, but you have to pay more for them.

Larry Fields from Northern California on October 20, 2011:

Voted up. Useful information.