How Is Identity Theft Accomplished?

Learn the facts of identify theft
Learn the facts of identify theft

The easy answer to the question how is identity theft accomplished? is that identity thieves steal personal information from their victims. However, in reality it is more complicated than that. Thieves have dozens of strategies they use to accomplish this goal. The following are some of the most common


The prevalence of identity theft in the last couple decades is largely due to the convenience of the Internet. That and other electronic ways of storing personal information have helped to fuel the boon. These include:

  • Phishing
  • Nigerian scams
  • Skimming
  • Data breaches
  • eCommerce


Phishing is a relatively new strategy that began to emerge in the early 2000s in the United States. This is a scam that usually takes place over the Web manifested in the form of an email from a thief who pretends to be a representative of a legitimate company, such as eBay, PayPal, a bank or a credit union. In the email, the thief tells the potential victim there is a problem with an account and he or she has to log on to a website to "verify information." Then the thief provides a link to the site. When the victim clicks on the link, he or she gets connected to a fake site created by the thief. Thus, the thief gets any personal information the person enters.

Nigerian Scams

These scams aren't new at all, but they're still cluttering email boxes across the USA. With these scams, the victims are informed that they've inherited or won a huge sum of money from a benefactor in Nigeria. Now all they have to do is cash a check or fork over account information.


Another high tech way that identity thieves get personal information is by skimming. Thieves attach an electronic "skimmer" to the card reader on an ATM or other device that reads credit or debit cards, such as the slot on a gas pump. The skimmer records the credit card number so that the thief is able to use it to make purchases. Most times the victim doesn't even know it's there.

Data Breaches

Some identity thieves hack into wireless networks or find their way into corporate databases, either by stealing laptop computers or connecting with disgruntled current or former employees. This often allows them to access large records of personal information such as payroll files or customer databases.


If they don't want to do the heavy lifting themselves, identity thieves can buy personal information through the online black market. There are several websites set up just for the purpose of buying, selling and trading between identity thieves.

Low-tech Techniques

Not all identity thieves are tech savvy. Some revert to techniques that have been around for decades. Even with increased consumer education, many are still surprisingly effective. These include:

  • Shoulder surfing
  • Dumpster diving
  • Wallet theft
  • Inside jobs

Shoulder Surfing

Shoulder surfing is simply looking over someone's shoulder when he or she makes a purchase or takes money out of an ATM. The thief memorizes the victim's name, credit card or debit card number and PIN.

Dumpster Diving

Nope, dumpster diving is not just an easy way for college students to get free furniture; it's also a popular pastime of some identity thieves. A lot of people still throw out letters, bank statements and other account records without shredding them or blacking out the personal information on them. Thieves can also get these documents if they're left in unsecured mailboxes.

Wallet Theft

Good old fashioned petty theft is also a source for identity thieves. They can get a good deal of information just by taking someone's purse or wallet, especially if that wallet contains account passwords or a Social Security card.

Inside Jobs

Often one of the most common answers to "how is identity theft accomplished?" is that it is an inside job. This means that people have access to others' personal information because they either live with them or are related to them. According to the Better Business Bureau, "almost half of all identity theft is perpetrated by friends, neighbors, in-home employees, family members or relatives." It's not uncommon for victims of this type of identity theft to be children who are not even old enough to obtain credit.

Really, How Is Identity Theft Accomplished?

Getting the information is the hard part. Once that's done, all a thief has to do is use that information to open accounts, commit crimes, get medical care, etc. Thus, it's important for consumers to protect themselves before the thieves can take the next step.

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How Is Identity Theft Accomplished?