Identity theft is serious business. But that hasn't stopped Hollywood from turning out a comedy with that as its central theme. In fact, it's the title of the movie.
Identity Thief opened in theaters Feb. 8 and was No. 1 at the box office its first weekend. It stars Jason Bateman as a businessman whose identity is stolen by a woman, played by Melissa McCarthy, who opens credit cards in his name and starts living it up. Unfortunately, that happens all the time in real life. And it's not as funny as it appears in the movie.
The movie attempts to play identity theft for laughs when Bateman's character turns vigilante and goes after the impostor, attempting to bring her to justice single-handedly. That kind of thing is rarely done and is definitely not advisable.
So, is a comedy about identity theft helpful or hurtful to the men and women who spend each day trying to help victims?
Embracing the exposure
“We're embracing the fact that the movie has brought exposure to this issue,” said Eva Casey Velasquez. President and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), in San Diego. “We would have preferred a more mainstream, realistic portrayal but we also realize the purpose of this movie is to make people laugh. Even though it's not a realistic picture, hopefully people who see it will think, maybe this is something I should be concerned about.”
The movie has received poor reviews, particularly among consumer advocates. Some point out a victim of identity theft should never bypass the police and go after the perpetrator themselves. On the other hand, the movie's very title highlights an issue that needs more awareness.
More than 11.6 million adults were victims of identity theft in 2011, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. Child identity theft is also a significant problem, which many people don't realize; 2.5 percent of U.S. households with children under age 18 have at least one child whose personal information has been compromised by identity criminals. Sadly, the perpetrators are often their parents.
In the federal fiscal year 2012, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Identity Protection Specialized Unit received 448,809 cases, up nearly 80 percent over the previous year.
Nine real life tips
Here are nine tips for avoiding identity theft that you won't see in the movie:
- Keep birth certificates, Social Security cards and other personal documents in a lockbox in your home. Make sure they are put away when someone is working in your home or even if you have a roommate.
- When disposing of documents, use a diagonal shredder, which makes documents harder to piece together than a traditional shredder does.
- Don't leave outgoing bills, government forms or tax forms in a mailbox. Take them directly to the post office.
- Have your mail held by the post office while on vacation.
- Don't put your driver's license number on your personal checks. Consider writing just your first initial and last name instead of your full name.
- Don't toss credit card receipts in public places.
- Install anti-virus software, anti-malware software and a firewall on your computer and keep them up to date. A tech-savvy identity thief can use a virus to get personal information from your computer without your knowing.
- Use unique passwords that are different for each website.
- Don't put your birthdate or other sensitive information on your social media accounts, even just the month and day. A thief can figure out the year you were born by looking at your posts.
If you become a victim of identity theft, Velasquez says ITRC is a resource you should turn to. She says the call center is staffed Monday through Friday from 7am to 5pm PT. If you call 1 (888) 400-5530, she says you'll speak to a person, not a phone tree.