Unattended cars: A growing target for identity thieves

Craig Guillot

It used to be that a car break-in meant a stolen radio. Nowadays, thieves are after more intangible goods. Criminals increasingly are targeting vehicles to swipe anything containing personal information to help them steal identities.

Whether it’s a smartphone left in the console or a bill left under a seat, there are many things a criminal can use to steal an identity. Drivers can take precautions to minimize the risk, but unless they have additional identity theft coverage, auto insurance companies typically are not responsible for covering financial losses caused by identity theft or stolen documents.

What's in your car?

Because thieves often can find valuable documents in vehicles, there is a growing link between car theft and identity theft. A survey by LoJack, which makes vehicle tracking devices, found that nearly one-third of those questioned had left an electronic device or documents with personal information in plain view in their cars. Almost 64 percent of survey respondents said they had their home addresses programmed into their GPS devices.

Unless their owners are extremely cautious, most vehicles contain at least a couple of documents that can help a thief learn more about the drivers. Identity theft expert Robert Siciliano says a glove compartment or center console usually is the first place a criminal looks. Some savvy criminals need little more than your vehicle registration and proof of insurance to call your insurance company and get information.

"You hope the insurance agent isn't dumb enough to give out that data, but if they're savvy, they could eventually get your Social Security number with that account number," Siciliano says.

Beyond that, some drivers leave much more vulnerable documents in their glove boxes, including bank statements, car titles, loan documents and checkbooks. If a criminal gets hold of these, it could result in the loss of thousands of dollars and a wrecked credit file that could take years to repair.

Privacy and security expert John Sileo says identity thieves increasingly are targeting vehicles because they're easier to break into than homes.

"They're going after information. It doesn't take much time, and it can happen when you step away from your vehicle for just a minute. It doesn't take much to bust a window and run away with something," Sileo says.

Criminals on the lookout for devices

Smartphones and laptops are other popular targets for thieves because they often contain valuable personal and financial information. Sileo says sophisticated thieves and organized crime rings often will work in pairs, targeting locations where businesspeople are likely to leave devices in their vehicles for short periods of time. Gangs will sometimes hire local criminals to steal devices so they can extract the data.

While the first thing you can do is to never leave a smartphone or similar gadget in your car, another safety measure is to put keypad locks on smartphones and password protection on laptops.

Sileo also recommends clearing the vehicle of all documents and keeping the registration and proof of insurance in a place where criminals are unlikely to look; consider folding the documents and tucking them inside the owner’s manual.

What's covered?

A checkbook, ATM card or device stolen from your vehicle typically won't be covered by your car insurance policy, Siciliano says. However, all of those losses and the fees incurred when trying to stop a thief from opening a new credit card in your name may be covered through homeowner’s insurance.

You generally would need to purchase a rider – additional coverage – on your homeowner’s insurance to cover mishaps related to identity theft. 

Such riders are relatively inexpensive and often can be added to auto, homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies. The coverage does not directly cover losses but do reimburses for expenses connected with recovering from identity theft, such as legal fees and lost wages.

Siciliano says the best bet for preventing a thief from compromising your identity or opening accounts in your name is to put a freeze on a credit report.

“It’s the best way to protect yourself. Before you can open any new accounts, you’ll have to ‘thaw’ your report, but it prevents someone else from opening accounts in your name,” Siciliano says.

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