Houston police officer R.C. Hesseldahl works in the department's financial crimes division and says about a half dozen officers work an increasing number of idenity theft crimes, from e-mail scams to stolen mail and forgery cases. "Identity theft is the biggest growing crime out there," says Hesseldahl. "Everybody's doing it and I think the reason they do it is because it's a crime against an unknown entity. They steal your identity, but they're not stealing money from you, they're stealing it from a company."
One of the most popular scams is called phishing, where crooks send out e-mails, purportedly from banks and popular web sites, like E-bay, asking for updated password and account information.
Criminals send out millions of these scam e-mails, and a percentage of consumers respond to them, making them targets for identity theft. AOL consumer advisor Regina Lewis says the worst thing to do is respond to phishers. "The number one thing is you don't want to respond to it, even if it's take me off your list because in doing so, you do a couple of things. One, you confirm that you're a legitimate e-mail and two that you're responsive and so you're only going to make yourself a bigger target," says Lewis.
Criminals typically use the information they get from internet phishing to create new identities in order to apply for credit cards and loans. Former FBI computer forensics agent and owner of Houston-based Acquisition Data William Odem says common sense is the best weapon against internet phishing.
He says following a link provided in an e-mail is dangerous and that it's better to log into your accounts from a known and legitimate website. He says web site mock-ups created by crooks look authentic, but are simply ways for the criminals to steal personal information.