When mail theft leads to ID theft

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When we think of identity theft, we often think about massive data breaches like those that occurred at the health insurance company Anthem, the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management or the retailer Target.

These were all computer breaches. But ID theft is a crime that can be high-tech, low-tech or no-tech.

In at least 2 instances — 1 in Michigan and another in Alaska — authorities recently charged men with stealing mail in order to commit identity theft. It’s a reminder that your data doesn’t have to be stolen online for you to fall victim.

How it happens

Here are 3 ways someone can use mail to commit identity theft.

They can take your credit card bill. An ID thief will use the credit card number on the bill to make purchases, but also might fill in a change of address on the back of the bill, send it in to the credit card company and perhaps get a few months’ use of the stolen credit card before the cardholder notices that he or she has not been getting credit card bills.

They can take your outgoing mail. Here’s why you might not want to mail your bill payments from your own mailbox: That red arm is a signal to the carrier that there’s something to be picked up, but it also sends a signal to identity thieves that something valuable may be inside. Score a jackpot for an ID thief by paying your credit card through the mail. The thief gets the information he needs to take over the credit card and he gets your check, which may be altered through a process called “washing” so that the check is made to appear to be payable to the identity thief.

The problems don’t end there, either, because the identity thief also can take the account information printed at the bottom of the check and easily make counterfeit checks.

They can even steal from the post office’s own boxes. Do those blue mailboxes found on street corners look impenetrable? Identity thieves have been known to coat with strong glue the inside of the pull-down chute in the mailbox. A person may think the mail went down the chute into the mailbox, but it actually is trapped on the chute, becoming easy pickings for the identity thief. Less subtle identity thieves merely break into U.S. mailboxes and gather up the deposited mail.

So what can you do?

  1. For your home, get a mailbox with a key.
  2. Consider paying your bills online.
  3. Deposit outgoing mail containing checks or personal information, such as your income tax return, at the local post office.
  4. Monitor financial statements daily for any fraudulent activity. You can also keep an eye on your credit report to ensure that identity theft is not occurring. Check your credit report for free at myBankrate.

All of this may seem a bit paranoid, but remember, even paranoidals have enemies.

Steve Weisman is a lawyer, a professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, author of “Identity Theft Alert” and editor of the blog scamicide.com.