With the arrival of the joyous days of Chanukah and the commemoration of the miraculous events that saved us from both physical as well as spiritual persecution, one cannot help but take note of the fact that while identity theft is a scourge of our technologically-advanced generation, it was identity theft, in a way, that threatened to eradicate us as a people back then as well.
Whereas on Pesach it was Paroh and the Egyptians who sought to enslave us, and on Purim it was Haman who worked to annihilate our entire people, on Chanukah our enemies were not only the Greeks, but the Misyavnim, our own Hellenized brothers, whose goal was to engineer our destruction. From the time we were taken from Egyptian slavery and pronounced as G-d’s people, we understood clearly that our national identity was inexorably linked to our fidelity to the Torah. There is no Jewish identity independent of a Torah identity.
The Misyavnim fought to change all that. They sought not to eradicate our nation, but rather to hijack its very identity and replace it with a glitzier, but ultimately hollow, shell. They desired not the death of the Jewish people, but rather the co-opting of its very identity.
As we joyously commemorate the miraculous way in which Hashem not only saved Torah Jewry from the nefarious schemes of the Hellenistic identity thieves, but publicly displayed His divine affection for us as well, it may be worthwhile spending a few moments on the issue of identity theft, its dangers, and how we can save ourselves from this terrible scourge.
How Does Identity Theft Work?
Basically, identity theft begins when someone, or a group of people, learn the secret details of your identity. Once this information is in their possession, they can use it to buy expensive items, open lines of credit, take out huge loans, even buy homes – all under your name! They then enjoy the items while the unsuspecting victim is stuck with the bill.
As identity theft grows unchecked, identity thieves have come upon nefarious ways to damage their victims even further. Thieves have learned not only how to steal one’s identity, but how to ensure that the victim never even realizes his identity has been stolen in the first place! In an even newer and far more insidious twist, identity thieves have hit upon methods wherein their victims no longer even recognize which is their own true original identity. Thus, the victims themselves now take out the loans, make the most extravagant purchases, and put themselves in debt, while the thieves don’t have to do any of the actual stealing. In this way, cunning identity thieves turn their very victims into partners in their own downfall.
Though any form of identity theft is wrong and illegal, this last form is the most dehumanizing. The victim is turned into a zombie, an unthinking robot, an unwitting accomplice in robbing himself blind. Having had his identity stolen, he no longer recognizes who he really is.
One particular area that has been hard hit by this last type of identity theft is consumer spending. In the days before identity theft, a person knew who he was, understood his financial standing, and spent accordingly. Obviously, he would never buy on someone else’s credit or spend money somebody else has.
Victims of the latest and most sophisticated types of identity theft, however, not only have their true identities stolen, but have been made to believe that they are somebody else’s identity. They can no longer differentiate between their own identity and the identity of their rich neighbor. They are no longer cognizant of whose identity is whose, and they begin to behave as if they are their rich neighbor. Thus, a simple person begins to spend on his house, his car, his weddings and affairs, and his day-to-day expenditures far, far more than he could ever afford. The thieves gleefully rake it in as the person’s spending habits skyrocket out of control, leaving the poor victim to wallow in hopeless debt.
Who Am I?
While identity theft has always primarily occurred in relation to financial matters, a rising number of cases concern non-financial identity theft as well. At times, an identity may be stolen for terror-related reasons, such as to give cover to foreign nationals, allowing them to operate under an assumed identity.
A less dangerous but more spiteful category of identity theft which has become quite widespread lately is theft carried out for no reason other than to simply embarrass the victim. Perpetrators steal a victim’s identity and lead him to believe that he is someone else. Having achieved that aim, they gleefully watch the poor victim making a fool of himself as he goes about acting as if he is of another identity. Such thieves have been known to trick women into wearing clothing that look horrendous on them, or far too small, by fooling the wearer into thinking that she is someone else for whom such clothing is indeed suitable.
Some truly sadistic identity thieves have gone so far in switching identities as to have their poor victims parade about in all sorts of weird or mismatched clothing. Some have been duped into believing that they are bandana-wearing ghetto thugs, ‘60’s hippies or motorcycle gangsters. They then dress the part, not realizing how foolish they look impersonating an identity that is clearly not theirs.
Tricks of the Identity Theft Trade
How do identity thieves steal one’s identity in the first place? Understanding how they do it is the first step in preventing oneself from falling victim.
There are three primary methods utilized by identity thieves in accomplishing their nefarious goals: Spamming, Phishing, and good old-fashioned Stealing.
Spamming is a term used to describe the overwhelming of a victim with a never-ending stream of junk mail, junk ads, junk articles, junk slogans, junk publications, and many other sort of junk messages. What spam does is overwhelm the receiver, whose mind, flooded with an overload of information, simply shuts down and goes blank.
This is exactly what the thieves have been waiting for. Having flooded the victim’s mind with spam and then shut it down as a result, his natural defenses and caution are circumvented, and they are free to walk right in and implant any ideas and any identity they so desire into the blank and receptive mind of the unsuspecting victim.
For example, identity thieves may spam a victim with hundreds of ads, appearing in quick succession, with messages like, “The shaitel/toy/deal/hall everyone is raving about!”
Or, “Are you the only person on your block who has not yet eaten at YunGrilLite?”
The spam can also come in the form of advice from tens of salespeople, all repeatedly spamming you with the same message, such as, “But this is what they’re all buying/wearing/doing.”
Once a victim is overwhelmed with all this spam, he finds it difficult to remember what is truth and what is fiction. He suddenly believes that perhaps everyone really is raving about this or that toy, going to this or that eatery, or wearing this or that style. The fact that it is one great fabrication becomes lost in the overwhelming flood of the spam messages. The victim can no longer differentiate between what is truth and what is hype.
While such spamming is relatively unsophisticated, it is far more effective than people realize. Spamming victims with constant ads and convincing messages has been known to make otherwise sane and intelligent people spend upwards of one hundred dollars on cheap and useless trinkets worth less than ninety-nine cents. Salesladies, fashion magazines, and other identity thieves have been known to spam customers into buying overpriced clothing and accessories that often don’t even look good on the buyer. The victim will purchase something that plays up her flaws or makes her look like a mindless clone, simply because she was spammed into believing that this look is her identity when it is clearly not.
Phishing is far more dangerous than spam. A “phisher” pretends to be someone they are not, thus allowing them to gain the victim’s trust and, in that position, to steal his identity. “Phishers” often impersonate reputable banks, credit card companies, or even respected charity organizations. In this guise, they convince their victims to share their most private financial and personal information and then use it to their own nefarious ends.
Sophisticated phishing has entered newer markets as well. Phishers not only impersonate reputable societies and charities, but may even pass themselves off as Torah-true courses or parenting/teaching seminars when they are anything but. Phishers utilize exact replicas of well-known company logos to carry out financial thefts, and they similarly utilize false claims of “hashgachos” or of “haskamos from gedolim” in perpetrating spiritual fraud. For example, a typical phishing attempt may conceal all sorts of unacceptable behavior behind a façade of “Do it to support a husband in learning.” The bait is false and a trap, laid simply to lure the victim into spending his or her money or joining the phisher’s desired cause.
The third method used by identity thieves involves old-fashioned stealing, similar to someone grabbing your wallet or purse. Short of actually stealing a wallet, though, how does one actually “steal” an identity? What happens is that the perpetrator bullies the victim into identity submission. This form of theft usually targets the weaker and more vulnerable segments of society. Children are overwhelmingly the victims of this type of aggressive identity theft.
Such theft may involve messages and advertisements directly addressing these vulnerable and impressionable children. The thieves unscrupulously bypass the children’s parents, dangling prizes and freebees directly in their faces. Any and all means of persuasive or tantalizing bait are used to hook these poor kids into the thieves’ net. Direct mailings (from lists of children that may indeed have been illicitly obtained), as well as flyers and other sorts of ads that bypass a parent’s more cautioned approach, are used by the perpetrators. A person may do his utmost to keep his and his family’s identities safe from spammers and scammers, only to have his children robbed of their spiritual identities behind his back.
Victims of this sort of theft – children as young as six and seven – have been known to be filled with all sorts of ridiculous and unrealistic visions and notions of expensive and far-fetched prizes. The thieves aggressively appeal directly to them, shamelessly circumventing the parents, and then have the children nag and make their parents’ lives miserable until they comply with whatever the identity thieves desire for the children to engage in.
How to Protect Yourself
Forewarned is forearmed. Educating oneself about the dangers of identity theft and understanding how it works is the best defense against falling victim to these schemers and scammers.
Above all, be proactive. Filter the messages that reach you and your loved ones of as much spam and junk messaging as possible. The federal government has enacted strict rules governing spam e-mails and phone calls. Senders and callers are required to stop contacting consumers on request, and often may not even make unsolicited contact in the first place.
When it comes to spam received in the form of ads, circulars, and free junk magazines and periodicals arriving via regular mail or courier, local governments have stepped in to protect the consumer as well. These governments have organized something called “trash pickup.” Depending on where you live, trash pickup may occur once, twice, or even three times a week. Any and all spam can be inserted into special receptacles designed especially for trash, and sanitation trucks will then cart this trash away to special places where these things belong. The spam need never even enter your home!
Spam that comes in the form of verbal messages can be more subtle, more difficult to detect, and not as easy to do away with. Still, awareness is half the solution. Knowing when something is spam or phishing helps one disregard the messages and saves one of the attempt at stealing his or her identity.
In the end, remember who you are, know what you believe in, and don’t ever allow anybody to convince you otherwise. We didn’t fall for the Misyavnim in their time, and we need not fall for any of their modern-day manifestations either.