In this upcoming tax season, you might need to worry less about what you owe and more about protecting yourself from identity theft. A Digital Journal investigation reveals that criminals stealing sensitive mail and income statements can shatter lives.
On a spring afternoon in 2006, Lionel Hondier's life tumbled upside down. Thieves broke into the mailbox of his Vancouver home and stole his income tax statement. Using Hondier's personal information -- such as his social insurance number, address and yearly income -- the criminals infiltrated his bank account and drained away as much as money as they could.
Hondier, who refurbishes old British cars for a living, contacted his bank immediately. They investigated his claim and compensated him for every penny the thieves stole. But the anguish didn't end there -- the identity theft attacks kept barraging Hondier, and over three years, the bank opened and closed Hondier's accounts five times.
"I didn't lose any money during these years, but I have been so aggravated and frustrated, it's indescribable," he tells DigitalJournal.com in an interview. "I've spent so many hours at my bank I know it better than my own house."
Two men were charged and convicted with fraud, but they spent a few months in custody, receiving the mild punishment of house arrest. What kind of sentence would Hondier like to see? "You don't want to know," he says grimly.
Hondier's story is a warning to anyone who believes their mail is 100 per cent safe. In light of tax season descending on the U.S. and Canada, people should be especially cautious about the sensitive info passing through their mailboxes. We hear all about potential online threats, and these days so many people forget identity theft can happen quite easily through that mail box bolted to the side of your house. After all, all a criminal needs is a social insurance number, or social security number, along with other minor details about someone's life -- and the rest is identity theft history.
Courtesy Lionel Hondier
Lionel Hondier with his wife and son and red Citroen 2CV. He was the victim of an identity theft scam that started when thieves stole his income statements
According to a new report from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, approximately 50,000 taxpayers complained about tax fraud and employment-related identity theft during 2006, compared with 18,000 in 2002.
Some areas of North America are harder hit than others. Vancouver is being known as the mail theft capital of Canada -- police sometimes face as many as 20 to 30 break-ins of mail boxes a week. And over one year alone, Canada Post had more than 1,000 reported cases of mail theft in the Vancouver area.
But Canada Post is quick to quell any undue paranoia. "Most people in Canada shouldn't worry about mail theft," says John Caines, a Canada Post spokesperson. "The majority of mail is delivered on time and safely."
He says some criminals don't always look at the fresh mail delivered daily, but at the discarded envelopes and letters found in blue boxes and dumpsters.
Det. Sgt. Doug Cousens of the Ontario Provincial Police told DigitalJournal.com some criminals may follow mail carriers to watch their routine. Also, some thieves look for "window envelopes" that hint at a cheque or personal financial information.
In the U.S., identity theft was the No. 1 consumer complaint filed in 2008, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Mail sabotage can be one of the culprits. Shalimar Price of the Internal Revenue Service told MSNBC: "We see now when they file their tax returns, they may see their tax return has already been filed. That happens, and so people come into our office."
Dan Mihalko, spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General, told DigitalJournal.com most mail theft is committed by people outside the 800,000-strong staff at the U.S. Postal Service. "We have seen gangs targeting certain individuals, or drug addicts needing instant money to satisfy their fix," he adds.
When it comes to mail thieves inside the force, Mihalko notes that in a year there have been 253 arrests of employees or contractors for the theft and/or the destruction of mail. In Canada, the problem is much worse; Canada Post says nearly half of all mail theft in Canada is committed by Canada Post employees, contractors or subcontractors (but it does not track theft after the mail is delivered).
How to Avoid Identity Theft
While no one is 100 per cent safe from identity theft (except people who live completely off the grid), there are some precautionary measures you can take to minimize your exposure to criminals.
Cousens said consumers should be aware of their mail arrival routine. "If you notice some mail has been delayed for a long time, find out what happened," he suggests.
Caines of Canada Post says residents should pick up their mail as soon as it arrives, if possible. And vacationers should notify neighbours to pick up their mail daily, in order to deflect attention away from their pile of potential booty.
Pete Rendina, national public information office at the U.S. Postal Service, suggests worried homeowners can use a PO box or purchase a locked mail box. "Having a key to your own mail could be very assuring," he adds.
Some experts suggest using online banking or tele-banking. But Lionel Hondier is skeptical about any pursuit that could potentially expose his information. He goes to the bank in person on Saturdays, a tradition he has been forced to begin thanks to the identity thieves hounding him.
"I never thought I'd be the target of this attack," he admits. "I'm just a regular guy. Then again, maybe it's because I'm the average Joe that I was targeted. It happens to thousands of people like me all the time."