It's a common scenario: you check your credit report to discover that someone has stolen your identity.

It's a common scenario: you check your credit report to discover that someone has stolen your identity.

In a culture that prides itself on point-and-click convenience, the down side is ease of access to our financial resources.

The horrifying reality is that our personal information can be accessed by anyone from a cellphone customer service representative to a bill collector.

And in a failing economy, how difficult would it be for said employees to sell identities in bulk to make a little extra income?

It has become increasingly popular for identity thieves and middlemen to steal personal information from  paper employment applications.

While many larger businesses have updated their hiring process to the online method, a file cabinet full of applications is like an arsenal of weapons in the ongoing war that identity thieves continue to wage against citizens.

Law enforcement agencies nationwide continue to investigate this ongoing phenomenon.

Meanwhile, on the local level, this particular tactic is something of a new concept.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office reports no complaints of paper employment applications used as a source for identity theft, according to Press Secretary Nanci Gonder.

"We have had complaints in the past about disgruntled employees (or terminated employees) accessing employee records for various reasons," she said.

St. James Police Chief Jim Anderson has no record of identity thieves using employment applications locally, but he urges citizens to be cautious when giving out their personal information.

"Using anything that would help you stay on top of your credit history and credit reports is a good thing," he said. "Just know that it can happen anywhere. Any time you have easy money, people are going to try and take advantage of you. They're wheeling and dealing and scheming all the time."

It is true, however, that most businesses have made the transition to the online application process, which in many ways is secure.

But that's not always the case, because you don't always know who is receiving the information once it is sent through cyberspace.

According to a July 2009 article in Bloomberg Businessweek, scammers have been known to use false job-listing sites.

"In some cases, scam artists sell data on legitimate job seekers to people who lack credentials—say, illegal residents—who need the data to land jobs. Of the roughly 313,000 cases of consumers registering complaints of identity theft to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in 2008, about 15 percent said thieves had perpetrated employment-related fraud with their stolen identities, according to a February 2009 report by the commission," the report said.

Diana Fuhring, owner of Diana's Diner in St. James, who still uses paper applications, says all personal information, including applications, are kept locked away at all times.

Chamber of Commerce director Dawn Thompson also keeps paperwork containing personal information under lock and key.

However, an ongoing problem she would like to see resolved is the next step in identity theft – businesses enabling said thefts to continue.

"It's bothersome to me that nobody ever asks you for identification when you give them your debit card," she said. "I always appreciate it when I go to a store and they swipe my card and they ask to see my identification. All you have to do is enter it as a credit card, and you could go for a couple of days and get away with however much gas money you wanted."

Thompson also said social media sites such as Facebook have made accessing personal information much easier.

"When you go to the pharmacy, they ask for your date of birth," she said. "Someone can get your name and date of birth from your Facebook page. People can get a lot of medication that way."

Thompson also recommends keeping your full name, street address and phone private as well.
"We're getting to the point where it's going to have to be the responsibility of the business. I think that every business should ask to see an ID before taking a check or a debit card," Thompson said. "It's an inconvenience to the customer, but how hard it is to put an extra card in your pocket?"

At this point, the experts agree that vigilance only goes so far in protecting your identity. With identity thieves and scammers working around the clock, even the most responsible men and women are vulnerable.

"About 50 percent of ID theft occurs from information collected from inside your own home, " said Chris Thetford of the Better Business Bureau in St. Louis. "One of the things that we tell consumers is to make sure they are keeping up with their own credit report."

There are a number of businesses that offer services to help protect consumers against identity theft. LifeLock offers a service that, according to its website, monitors credit activity and alerts customers whenever misuse of personal information is detected.

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