When a burglar broke into Brenda McCowan's Cape Girardeau home in April, he grabbed only one thing -- her purse. But McCowan realized almost immediately that the thief had made off with much more than the miscellaneous items inside.
When he scurried out the back door, along with $18 and some family pictures, he had taken her identity with him. Or at least enough to recreate a reasonable facade: credit cards, her Social Security number and driver's license. Throw in a command of computers and criminal mind and it adds up to one costly possibility.
"He had access to everything," said McCowan, director of finance for the Cape Girardeau School District. "What I truly believe was that he was looking for drug money. But I knew what could happen. I was too afraid from all you read about identity theft."
So McCowan did what you're supposed to do. She went through the cumbersome process of canceling credit cards, notified the national credit bureaus and contacted her bank and police.
"It just took hours and hours and hours," McCowan said. "It was a big hassle, but you have to do it. There's too much to lose."
McCowan's identity was safe. But not everyone reacts so quickly. Annually, 10 million Americans are affected by identity theft. Stolen identities sock business and consumers for more than $53 billion in losses each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Identity thieves get the information in many circuitous ways. They buy and sell stolen identities on Web sites all over the world. They also trick people into giving out personal information by "phishing" -- a scheme that involves imitating e-mails from financial institutions to dupe victims into revealing financial information.
There's also so-called "Dumpster diving," where a company's garbage is scoured for financial data. Often, grudge-holding friends and ex-spouses have access to personal information as well.
Once thieves have the information, they can then set up new accounts or rack up big bills on existing accounts until the account is closed, usually after a victim contacts authorities.
But police say ID thieves are slick, hiding behind phony names and temporary e-mail addresses, which disappear as soon as they are discovered. Identity thieves are hard to track, so they are seldom brought to justice. Under federal law, credit card holders are liable for no more than $50 of unauthorized charges.
Identity theft is a growing problem locally. In 2003, Cape Girardeau police received 18 reports, followed in 2004 with 54. To date this year, there have been 27 reports of identity theft, the same number as this time last year.
Five Jackson residents reported identity theft in 2003, followed by seven in 2004 and 13 so far in 2005.
"We're getting several a week now," said Lt. Tracy Lemonds of the Cape Girardeau Police Department. "They can get the information so many ways. They can even stand next to you in the check-out lane and read the Social Security number off the check you're writing."
But sometimes credit companies that are supposed to safeguard information slip up. Last month, a security breach of customer information at a credit card transaction company exposed 40 million cardholders to fraud. That followed a flurry of breaches affecting high-profile companies including Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. and MasterCard.
Those breaches prompted federal and local lawmakers to draft legislation to better protect consumer privacy. Earlier this month, several U.S. senators introduced the Identity Theft Protection Act, the 10th identity theft bill put into play this session. The proposal demands that companies, schools or other groups that collect personal information disclose any data breach. Failure to do so, under the proposal, could mean up to $11 million in fines.
Locally, Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, was the sponsor of a bill that Gov. Matt Blunt signed into law earlier this month. House Bill 353, among other things, lowers financial thresholds that define identity theft as a crime. Currently, a class B felony occurs when the amount stolen exceeds $10,000. That threshold under the new law is reduced to $5,000. The amount for a class A felony is reduced from $100,000 to $50,000.
Still, consumers should beware. At Southeast Missouri State University, officials are changing student ID cards this fall so that they do not include Social Security numbers.
"In the past, Social Security numbers were printed on the front," said John Weber, assistant vice president of information technology. "If a student lost that card and someone found it, they had all that information right there."
This fall, 12,000 new cards will be issued to students that include a computer-generated number that is at least 10 digits, Weber said. He said he didn't know of any cases of identity theft on campus, but the university wants to address identity theft before it becomes a problem.
It would become less of a problem for consumers if they made it more difficult for information thieves, said Detective Bradley Smith, who investigates computer crimes for the Cape Girardeau Police Department."It happens because of the vast knowledge of the people who do it and sometimes a victim's lack of knowledge," he said. "Victims aren't protecting themselves. They make it easy for others to gather their information."
Smith said a few simple rules will help. If you shop online, always review the Web site to make sure they have security to protect their information. Consumers should also be leery of "phishing" schemes. A flag should go up if your bank is asking for your account information -- the bank should already have it, Smith said.
"If a site looks strange or an e-mail looks strange, don't reply," he said. "There are a lot of bogus sites out there that are looking just to collect information."
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