ID Theft: Is Your 'Holy Trinity' Online?

1009_Identity Theft
A man types on a computer keyboard in Warsaw in this February 28, 2013 illustration file picture. Catching ID theft quickly, and taking the necessary steps to recover from it and get your life back in order, are absolutely crucial for any victim. Kacper Pempel/Files/Reuters

Watch your in box. If you get a message from a computer program called Identity Angel, you may be vulnerable to having your identity stolen. On July 23, the program--developed at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh--began combing the Internet for your Social Security number (usually, the last four digits don't appear on public records). For identity thieves, it's a free pass to your bank and credit-card accounts. (The other two elements of the ID thief's "holy trinity"--name and address, and date of birth--are usually easy to find on the Internet.) If Identity Angel finds your holy trinity, it will send an e-mail warning (assuming it finds your e-mail address).

In the first week or so, the program had already discovered about 5,000 holy trinities, says CMU professor Latanya Sweeney, head of the project. On Wednesday, Sweeney will begin releasing the e-mail notifications. "This is going to be a really weird event," says Jay Foley, director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing identity theft. He foresees a flurry of complaints directed at bureaucracies that have neglected to remove Social Security numbers from online documents. The biggest source of Social Security numbers, however, are résumés posted on job-search boards.

Sweeney hopes the Federal Trade Commission or private companies will one day use Identity Angel as a prevention tool. "We would love to be able to say, 'Look at how many tens of thousands of people we saved from identity theft,'" she says. One drawback: there's nothing stopping thieves from developing their own program--call it Identity Devil.