Author, Expert & Speaker

I never really learned about crimes and the criminal mind until my time in prison. I studied criminal law in law school in an intellectually sterile context. Law students learn the elements that constitute criminal conduct from textbooks and lectures. Using the Socratic method of questions and answers, students learn the puzzle pieces that constitute jurisprudence. Those courses and lectures never got much deeper than teaching us to determine, based on a person’s mental state, whether a set of factors qualifies as a crime.

In criminal law, a person’s motive for committing a crime is not a relevant element—interesting, of course—but not indicative of criminal conduct. What is relevant is a person’s mens rea—whether the accused possessed the requisite guilty state of mind when alleged acts of criminal conduct were committed.

A fundamental principle of criminal law is that a crime consists of both a mental and a physical element. Mens rea, a person’s awareness that his or her conduct is criminal, is the mental element, and actus reus, the act itself, is the physical element. In my own case, I could reconcile the charge of grand larceny made against me with my guilty mindset, which resulted in a guilty plea for conduct I recognized as culpable. It was a difficult decision to make for myriad reasons I discuss in my book Derailed.

Criminology 101 in Prison

There are downtimes in prison when inmates talk to each other in small groups and one on one. The topics of discussion vary as they would anywhere people are together in other social contexts. Sometimes the talk turns to the details of crimes that don’t have anything to do with drugs, carjacking, or burglary.

When the exchanges turned to identity theft, I did not share in the humor attached to the stories being told. Identity theft is not a victimless crime; I saw it as a coward’s crime.

Last week when my bank called me, I flashed back to the lessons I learned about identify theft. Once the stern voice on the phone satisfied himself, through my responses to his questions, that I was who he intended to be speaking with, I was asked about four suspect attempted charges to my ATM card the day before. The attempts were made at four locations in Laughlin, Nevada, a place I had not been to for fifteen years.

I immediately remembered the schemes and lie techniques I learned in prison that could enable a person bent on stealing my identity. I recalled the stories about the variety of ways information could be harvested to steal one’s identity information. In my case, I believe someone rifled through the piles of discarded records in my garbage that had accumulated for trash pickup prior to my move to a new residence.

I remembered the stories of early morning garbage raids and the treasure trove of information that is revealed by such expeditions. I recalled hearing about the adrenalin rush and the excitement of finding documents that revealed social security numbers, bank information, credit card information, PINs, health information, passport information, and so much more. By letting down my guard, I had opened the door to being scammed. But because my bank identified suspect conduct on the ATM card and contacted me, I avoided a lot of additional grief from this experience. The bank put a stop on my card and reissued a new one with a fresh PIN.

When I was told me to expect a new card and PIN in the mail, a small voice inside me questioned the security of the procedure. In prison, higher level identity-theft curricula covered how using the US mail to send and receive credit and ATM cards can be like striking a temporary vein of gold. I learned that planting a criminal cohort who is trained to recognize banks’ low-key methods of using unremarkable envelopes to mail credit cards, PINs, and ATM cards in the post office provides opportunities for a second round of identity theft.

Be Alert

When you’re expecting a new ATM card, on day one you should receive an inconspicuous letter with the PIN. On day two, you should receive another inconspicuous letter with the card that corresponds to the PIN. If you don’t receive both envelopes, in that order within a day or two, call your bank. If you receive one envelope but not the other, call your bank. Something is wrong.

Protect Yourself

The FBI provides the following tips for avoiding identity theft:

  • Never throw away ATM receipts, credit statements, credit cards, or bank statements in a usable form.
  • Never give your credit card number over the telephone unless you make the call.
  • Reconcile your bank account monthly, and notify your bank of discrepancies immediately.
  • Keep a list of telephone numbers to call to report the loss or theft of your wallet, credit cards, etc.
  • Report unauthorized financial transactions to your bank, credit card company, and the police as soon as you detect them.
  • Review a copy of your credit report at least once each year. Notify the credit bureau in writing of any questionable entries and follow through until they are explained or removed.
  • If your identity has been assumed, ask the credit bureau to print a statement to that effect in your credit report.
  • If you know of anyone who receives mail from credit card companies or banks in the names of others, report it to local or federal law enforcement authorities.

I’m glad to report that my new PIN and ATM card arrived safely in my mailbox. I have learned that the knowledge I gained in my prison identity-theft classes requires my continued, never lapsing, attention.

Have you been a victim of identity theft? Share your story in the comments.

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