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Identity theft on the big screen: What can you learn from the movies?

By , CardRatings contributor
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With the upcoming release of the movie "Identity Thief," starring Jason Bateman, this all-too-common crime is once again brought into the mainstream media.

"While the movie looks very entertaining from the previews, the film also puts identity theft on the front page again and keeps the crime in the front of people's minds. This crime really can happen to anyone," says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com. While identity theft can often be farfetched in the movies, Ulzheimer says that the identity theft plot in the new movie is similar to the crime that people most often experience: a person's financial information is secretly stolen and used to obtain credit cards and other financial gains.

But in general, does Hollywood accurately portray identity theft?

'Catch Me If You Can'

In this 2002 Oscar-nominated film, Leo DiCaprio played the real-life character of Frank Abagnale Jr., who forged checks and pretended to be various identifies, including a pilot, lawyer and even a doctor. "Catch Me If You Can" illustrated exactly how Abagnale pulled off the identify thefts and forgeries, and even more interestingly, how the FBI eventually caught him. Ulzheimer, who names "Catch Me If You Can" as one of his favorite movies, said that while the crimes shown in the movie actually happened during the time period, the fraud portrayed could most likely not happen today. "Now there are much more effective and high-tech ways of identity theft than just recreating a check," Ulzheimer says.

'The Net'

Even though we have come a long way from the dial-up modems and floppy disks used to solve the crime in "The Net," the Internet and mobile devices are often used to steal someone's identity these days. Throughout the movie, Angela Bennett, played by Sandra Bullock, is frustrated because she cannot convince anyone that she is who she says she is. While it might not be quite as difficult as that to get someone to believe your real identity, victims of identity theft spend months, and sometimes years, trying to erase the damage that the thief did to their finances and restore their credit.

'Identity Thief'

Identity theft typically means simply stealing someone's identity for financial reasons, while in the movie "Identity Thief," the lead character finds that a woman has actually inhabited his body after he won $50 million. The movie chronicles Matt Walker's struggles being the other person and trying to get his identity back. Although this film is fantasy, the movie provides some thought-provoking moments about how important our identity is to every part of our life. It also deals with the financial ramifications, as Walker no longer has access to the money that he has won and is broke.

Preventing a real-life drama

While movies featuring identity theft are nothing new, the number of people experiencing the drama in their own life has definitely increased in real life. The Taxpayer Advocate Service reported a 97 percent increase in reported identity thefts from 2010 to 2011; thousands of people are experiencing the nightmare of trying to get their identity back.

Ulzheimer recommends using the following three measures to keep your life from resembling an identity theft movie:

  1. Shred everything. Buy a high-quality cross-cut shredder and shred everything that has your personal information on it, such as name, address, Social Security number and banking institutes. Make sure you do not put any statements, credit card recipients or credit card offers into your garbage can.
  2. Be engaged in your credit card. Log into each credit card account online every few days to verify that the pending transactions and recent transaction were actually made by your or your spouse. If you wait until you get your monthly statement, the thief could already have taken out a loan for a new car or be on a plane for an island vacation.
  3. Get a free credit report and consider credit monitoring. You should request your free credit report each year through AnnualCreditReport.com to make sure that you have only authorized credit cards and loans listed. Not enough of us do this regularly. While many people are aware of the subscription monitoring services, Ulzheimer recommends checking out free credit monitoring services, such as CreditSesame.com and CreditKarma.com.

No matter if you head to the theaters to see the new release, wait for the DVD or skip it all together, identity theft is something of which you should be knowledgeable and actively protect against. "It can be expensive, time consuming and you are not always successful in erasing the damage done," Ulzheimer says.

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