Toward a definition of identity theft.

The other day I heard a warning that having someone steal your checkbook is the “worst form of identity theft.”

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure that is identity theft.

I suppose I’m something of a purist in this case. To me, “identity theft” occurs when someone obtains your personal identifying information without your permission, and uses it to open new financial accounts, obtain credit, medical services or employment, or evade arrest.

To me, someone just swiping your checkbook and passing checks all over town falls under the umbrella of simple “theft.” I suppose on some level the thief is implying that he or she is you, but credit is not being obtained in your name in this case. It’s sort of like someone just stealing your cash. The thief doesn’t have your Social Security number or date of birth, all he has is your checkbook. Once those stop working, he’ll abandon them.

Not that having your checkbook stolen isn’t a massive headache. I’m not saying it’s something to take lightly at all. It’s just that I don’t think it constitutes identity theft per se.

I also don’t believe that simple credit card theft usually equals identity theft. Once again, the thief may be implying that he or she is an authorized user of your credit card, but that’s as far as the crook is taking things. They’re not changing your address so you don’t get the bills, they’re just burning through your card for a couple days until they max it out.

Once again, it’s a pain for the victim, but it’s not quite identity theft.

My parents were among the victims of the Heartland Payment Systems data breach back in 2008. Their credit card (which they had used once at a restaurant) suddenly showed two charges of $850 at an electronics store in California. One call to the credit card company was all it took—I don’t even think my dad had to finish his sentence before the customer service person said, “Yes, there was a data breach…aaaaaand you’re all fixed.” There was no need to place alerts on credit reports or anything. A crook had used their credit card numbers, they called the company, problem solved. In a case of true identity theft, it would have taken a lot more than one phone call to remedy the situation.

Again, I’m not saying this type of theft can’t be a hassle, because it can be. I guess I’ve just been seeing the term “identity theft” get thrown around a lot, and it seems useful to place a few limits on the term, if only for clarity.

One final point: you’ll never hear me use the phrase “ID theft” as shorthand for identity theft. Your ID is a card with your picture and information on it. Your identity is all the non-public personal information about you—date of birth, Social Security number, credit reports, etc.

To me, “ID theft” sounds like somebody just stole your driver’s license. Of course, identity theft could involve someone stealing your ID (and then manufacturing a new one with their picture and your information), but “ID theft” is a term that obscures rather than illuminates.

Stay Vigilant

Nobody is ever 100% safe from fraud, scams or identity theft. Even if you’ve done everything possible to prevent becoming a victim, it can still happen.

Take, for example, the data breach at Heartland Payment Systems a few months ago. Through no fault of their own, thousands of people experienced unauthorized use of their credit or debit cards. It wasn’t that they fell for a phishing email or a fake phone call. They simply made a purchase or two at a store or restaurant that used Heartland as their card processor.

However, there is no reason to panic. By taking simple steps to stay safe on your end, you can drastically reduce your chances of becoming a victim of fraud.

The key is to be informed and vigilant. Know what the threats are, know how to spot a scam and keep a close watch on your financial statements, and you’ll be miles ahead of where the crooks would like you to be.

That’s why REGIONAL Federal Credit Union is bringing you this new website. We believe that education is key to achieving financial security and independence.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. In fact, it is my aim to make this site as entertaining as possible (despite the admittedly bone-dry seriousness of this first post). I’ll be posting some Video Dispatches from the FPU very soon. Be sure to check those out. There’ll be enough weird props, strange pop culture references, silly music and bad acting for everyone, and you’ll learn something, too.

I’ll be learning, too. After all, there are new variations on these scams popping up all the time. It will be a chore to keep up, but I will do my best. In the meantime, questions, comments and suggestions are always welcome! Use the comment function below, or email me directly at Also be sure to follow the FPU on Twitter (@fraudprevunit). I’ll be posting tips and updates there as well.

And always remember: stay vigilant.