In the 1990 movie "Darkman," a scientist develops a synthetic skin, but before he can announce his discovery to the world, mobsters blow up his laboratory with him in it. Although he survives, he's badly burned and hides his disfigured face from society. Using his synthetic skin and his knack for mimicking the voices of other people, he assumes the identity of various people to get back at the criminals who tried to destroy him.

Of course, the idea of imitating another person so perfectly is so far-fetched that nobody believes it could ever happen to them. Unfortunately, in today's world, no one has to mimic the way you look, speak, and act because everyone's identity is wrapped up in a string of numbers and words that define that person in a computer database. Just steal certain information that only your victim is supposed to know, such as that person's Social Security number, and as far as the computer is concerned, you are that other person.

Once someone has stolen your identity, they can do anything they want while you get blamed for their actions. Identity thieves have opened credit card accounts under other people's names and racked up thousands of dollars worth of debts before disappearing, essentially wrecking the victim's credit rating. Other identity thieves have purchased new cars, opened cell phone accounts, and taken out loans.

By the time an identity thief has wrecked your credit rating and saddled you with legal and financial bills, he (or she) can simply repeat the whole process all over again with another innocent victim. A smart identity thief can work for years off other people's credit and never get caught or punished, which means that you could be the next target and not even know it.

Guard your personal information

To steal your identity, a thief just needs to copy any numbers or passwords that uniquely identify you, such as your Social Security number, driver's license, checking account, and credit card numbers; passport information; or personal information, such as a home address, mother's maiden name, and birth date.

The first step to protecting yourself against identity theft is to strip your wallet or purse as clean of any of this information as possible. After all, how many times during the day do you really need your Social Security card, birth certificate, or passport? And if you can't remember your mother's maiden name or PIN number, then you probably have bigger problems than worrying about identity theft anyway.

Stripping your wallet of as much unnecessary identification as possible can protect you against pickpockets or just plain forgetfulness, in case you leave your wallet or purse behind somewhere.

After purging your wallet or purse, the next step requires a more conscious effort. Be careful about giving out your personal information to others. Don't print your Social Security number or driver's license number on your check, and be sure to shred any pre-approved credit card applications you get in the mail.

Dumpster diving, a popular hacker technique for finding useful information among the trash, can also be used by identity thieves who can fill out any credit card applications you've tossed in the trash, write in a new address, and have a new credit card (in your name, of course) sent to the identity thief's home (or phony) address instead. Armed with a credit card that you've never seen before, an identity thief can go on a shopping spree, leaving you stuck with the bill months later.

Rather than steal your personal information without your knowledge, identity thieves may take the less obvious, but more effective, route of just asking you for your personal information directly.

Obviously if a total stranger asked for your Social Security number, you would be suspicious, but imagine if you've recently lost your wallet and a concerned bank employee calls to verify your ATM personal identification and account number. Without thinking, most people would automatically give out this information over the telephone, not realizing that the phony bank employee is actually an identity thief.

One particularly devious scam targets elderly African-Americans. Flyers often appear around churches, nursing homes, or through email with headlines boasting:

Apply for Newly Approved Slave Reparations!

Claim $5,000 in Social Security Reimbursements!

The flyers claim that elderly African Americans are eligible for slave reparations under a fictional "Slave Reparation Act" or for Social Security funds due to a "fix" in the Social Security system.

To be eligible for this money, people must contact someone who then asks for their name, address, phone number, birth date, and Social Security number to process their request for this nonexistent money. Once the identity thieves have the information they need, they can open up credit card accounts under the victims' names.

Although identity theft has been around since long before computers, the Internet has brought renewed attention to identity theft. Hackers can break into a corporate website and steal credit card information. Less likely, but still a real possibility, is that someone could plant a remote access Trojan horse (such as Back Orifice or NetBus), which can capture keystrokes as you type your credit card information over the Internet.

While you may be defenseless against hackers who infiltrate corporate databases containing your credit card information, you can guard your personal computer against Trojan horses by installing a firewall (which can block suspicious activity on the Internet) and antivirus or anti–Trojan horse programs that can detect the presence of a Trojan horse and wipe it off your hard disk.

If it happens to you

Despite any precautions you may take, there's always the chance that you'll be the next identity theft victim. Once you find out that someone has stolen your identity, you need to take action immediately by canceling every credit card you have, including bank cards, department store cards, gasoline cards, and even video store cards.

After shutting down your existing charge accounts to minimize any damage from the identity thief, contact the following three credit agencies and explain that you've been a victim of fraud. These credit agencies will place your accounts on a fraud alert list that can further protect you from any charges run up by the identity thief.

EQUIFAXPO Box 105069
Atlanta, GA 30348
(800) 525-6285

PO Box 6790
Fullerton, CA 92634
(800) 680-7289

PO Box 1017
Allen, TX 92634
(888) 397-3742

Since trying to repair your credit rating can be time-consuming and frustrating, consider subscribing to a fraud protection service that your credit card company might offer. Such a service limits your liability from identity theft and can help repair your credit rating quickly.

Of course, fraud protection services only protect you for a single charge account, so you might want to consider the services of a company such as PromiseMark (, that can protect your entire identity. PromiseMark offers an Identity Theft Protection Plan that can help you through the process of repairing your credit and establishing new accounts. That way you can minimize the financial damage and get your life back in order as quickly as possible, without going through the frustration and hassle of repairing your credit rating all by yourself.

For more information about identity theft and ways to prevent, protect against, or recover from identity theft, visit Victims Assistance of America (, the United States Department of Justice (, or the United States government's dedicated website about identity theft (

So what are the chances that you may lose your identity? Probably not that great, but ask Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Warren Buffett, or Martha Stewart what they might have thought about becoming an identity theft victim. Or visit the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse ( to read the long list of ordinary citizens who lost their identities and spent months (or even years) trying to repair the damage.

To help you recover from identity theft, buy a copy of the Identity-Theft Survival Kit, available from ( This kit includes a book to help you understand what you can do after being victimized by identity theft, attorney-written form letters to protect your legal rights and help you reestablish credit, and six audio cassettes that explain how to recover from identity theft.

The odds of getting in a car crash aren't that great, but most of us probably have car insurance anyway. So if the thought of losing your identity frightens you, perhaps a little bit of protection might not be such a bad thing after all. Just make sure that any organization you trust with your identity isn't really an identity thief in disguise.