The Non-Expert

Identity Crisis

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week we (or someone claiming to be us) detail many popular methods for stealing identities.

Have a question? Need some questionably expert advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: Somebody stole my friend’s identity, and it was a huge hassle for her to get it all sorted out. So what I’m wondering is: How does that happen, anyway? How does one go about stealing someone else’s identity? I swear I’m not a criminal. I’m just an interested citizen. —Maureen

Answer: Some argue that identity theft—that is, literally “stealing someone else’s identity”, as you put it—is impossible. Obviously, these people have not seen The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anything is attainable, so long as you’re willing to off Jude Law. But, as you say, you’re no criminal; instead, you’d simply like to know how to go about borrowing someone else’s identity.

Why would you want to do that, I wonder? For starters, you may have low self-esteem, and you’re likely looking for a way to live vicariously through someone else’s wallet, an activity at which I’m quite adroit.

Here, then, are lessons from the art.

Skimming and Phishing—Huh?

You might be thinking these first two methods sound like chapter headers for a Louisiana pool-cleaning manual, but they are slightly more glamorous than that. “Skimming” refers to illegal obtainment of credit card numbers, PINs, and other valuable personal data by stealing or copying them off of receipts, using card-reading devices at ATMs, snorkeling through landfills, etc. “Phishing,” on the other hand, entails fraudulently identifying oneself as a bank, payment service, or other trustworthy institution for the purposes of electronically obtaining the same types of personal information. Both methods can be used to open credit card accounts, buy Ferraris, and go on a hookers-and-blow spree all under some poor schmuck’s name. Both methods are awesome.

But for those of us who aren’t waitresses or tech geeks, skimming and phishing aren’t such viable options. For us, it’s best to target friends and significant others for this purpose. What about your live-in boyfriend? Does he do the dishes? Is he an asshole to your cat? Copy down his credit card information and proceed to make buttloads of online purchases to be delivered to your other boyfriend’s house. He may get a credit card statement soon thereafter. No big deal, really—most people are too busy or high to actually read those things.

A more low-tech—but still successful—version of phishing can be conducted over the phone. Below are a couple of examples showing how to successfully pull off such a ruse. Remember, you will be dealing with idiots, for the most part.

On the phone:


YOU: Hi, I’m calling from the Bank of the United States, and I have some important questions regarding your account.

PERSON: Um, I don’t bank with any bank called that. Are you sure you have the right number?

YOU: Yes, I’m positive. We just want to verify that your information is correct. Is that all right?

PERSON: Well, sure, I guess so. Where did you say you were from again?

YOU: Your bank. What is your bank?

PERSON: Washington Mutual.

YOU: I’m calling from Washington Mutual. That’s what you said it was, right?


YOU: Well?

PERSON: OK! My account number is 04852-66936. My social security number is 508-31-2254. My mother’s maiden name is Fleitzenbein. I went to Jefferson Middle School. My first pet’s name was Señor Mittens.

YOU: That’s perfect. Thanks for your patronage, sucka—I mean, customer.

See how easy that was? You can also bust out your fake online persona and lure them in that way. Check out this example:

KewlBANKTellR: Hey, u! HOwz it goin!

[Victim]: OK. Do I know u?

KewlBANKTellR: Sure! I’m ur online financial account consultant. We’ve has some frodulent online activity w/ ur account. Wood u verify ur information plz?

[Victim]: Of course! It make sme so happee I can do this all online now! I hate banks. They r full of old crusty peeple. Gross!

KewlBANKTellR: I SO feel u! So give me the info, crazy bee-otch!

[Victim]: OK! LOL! Here. : )

When given any credit card information, be sure to ask for the credit card identification number, or all the effort you just expended will be for naught. Most customers will have no idea what you’re asking for, however, so you should probably just say “the little number on the back of the card.” That seems to work.

And remember: Courtesy counts. Be sure to thank your victim, or they might sense something fishy is afoot.

One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Teeth

Let’s be honest with ourselves: Dumpster-diving lacks appeal no matter whose garbage you’re groping. Ask any parent whose kid ever lost his retainer—no fun. But garbage receptacles also happen to be treasure troves of useful personal information, sloughed off pre-approved credit cards, and, if you’re lucky, an uneaten half sandwich here or there.

If you happen to find any of the standard items you’re looking for (e.g., a bill or a pre-approved credit application), simply follow the above advice to put these things to good use. If you don’t hit immediate pay dirt with the obvious stuff, you’ll have to get creative.

Take a simple wad of gum, for example. This tiny throw-away unlocks a world of possibilities. When rummaging through the garbage at a private residence, it’s safe to say that a discarded wad you’ve found belongs to the resident. Take the gum back to your lab and extrapolate a full set of dental impressions from it. Now, it is only a matter of finding your victim’s dentist by calling 1-800-DENTIST and providing his (your) name to get the location of this dentist’s office. For the name, pretend to be a door-to-door Greenpeace volunteer and guilt him into providing this information; everybody can spare a few minutes to save the earth. While you’re at it, ask for a fingerprint (why not?). After you leave, have your sketch artist render his face to paper for you. Then ask your plastic surgeon to have your features modified to match his. You thinking what I’m thinking?


Free dental work, compliments of a wad of gum. And for hardly any effort at all. Sweet!

Pick Your Pockets Wisely

Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing more fun than stealing someone’s possessions off their actual, physical person. If you lack the technology for more grandiose schemes or are just looking to blow off some steam, pickpocketing can be as lucrative and fertile of a fraudulent practice as any other.

First, choose a victim, or “mark,” as they are sometimes called. It helps to be in a tight space where brushing up against someone is the norm—inside a subway car, on the bus, or in the same telephone booth. Once you get an idea where they are keeping their wallet, wait for a lurch, an abrupt stop, or some other excuse to knock into them. Then, grab, grab, grab.

You can also tag-team your victims with a partner. You or your partner will create a distraction while the other lifts the wallet. Some good distractions are:

  • Having a heart attack or seizure
  • Having a heart attack and seizure
  • Claiming there is a swarm of bees heading this way
  • Dropping something important, like a purse or baby
  • Re-enacting a scene from Cloverfield

Essentially, what you want to do is play on their sympathies or fears. Both will make them vulnerable to outside attack. As your partner is twitching on the pavement, clasping his left arm, his purse contents strewn about him, the last thing your victim will be worried about is some perv trying to cop a feel. Homey is dying over there!

You are in a good spot now that you’ve gotten your mark’s wallet or purse, but you need to act quickly, as they’ll soon realize the ruse and cancel any credit or ATM cards that you’ve stolen. Liquor stores are great places. Not only because they sell liquor, but because many do not check ID for card purchases (just make sure you look old enough). Also try grocery stores, and keep your purchases quick and modest in size.

If someone does peer at the name on the card with suspicion, try to play it cool. Though, from experience, I must warn you that you may need to go the extra mile to convince the clerk that it’s your card.

CLERK: How would you like to pay for this iguana?

ME: Charge it on this card.

CLERK: You’re Jude Law?

ME: Uh, yeah. That’s what the card says, doesn’t it?

CLERK: Really? THE Jude Law?

ME: Listen, if you’re going to hassle me then I’ll just pay cash. I need to get that thing to church, stat.

CLERK: Oh no, that won’t be necessary, Mr. Law. You look just like you do in the movies. Let me just ring you up right now…

And finally, remember to thank your plastic surgeon. You’ve now got a mug to die for.