For years, crimes have followed the same age old mantra: wrong place at the wrong time. For someone to commit a crime against someone else, they had to be physically in the same area. But that's no longer the case; it's now easier than ever to be victim of a crime, particularly identity theft, without even realizing it.
Identity thieves snatch tens of billions dollars a year through credit card fraud, either outright, or by selling your card information to other crooks across the globe. The perpetrators come from a loosely organized international underworld working beyond the reach of the law and without limits.
"They can sit in an apartment in Kiev ... and steal your identity and you're going to be in a world of hurt," said Dan Clements, founder of Card Cops, a company that has been tracking hackers who buy and sell people's identities. "They blatantly ... trade credit cards. They trade social security numbers. They trade debit card pin numbers."
Card Cops has been tracking hackers' activity for a decade. Crooks from all over the world meet in Internet chat rooms, in what almost looks like an underground stock market.
"Credit cards are commodity items," Clements said. "They can go for as little as $2 or $3 for a regular credit card. If you have a platinum card, it may be for $10 or $20. It's big business. They make a lot of money. There are people here that claim to make $20,000 to $30,000 a month selling these resources in these chat rooms."
The chat rooms operate like a commodity floor, where information is openly traded, and the hackers who carry out identity theft usually live in another part of the world.
"It's a global market," Clements said. "It's like a bazaar where you can buy anything at any time."
The Card Cops should know: They entered the business of protecting consumers and merchants from identity theft because many of them were scammed themselves when they worked together at another Internet company.
To help understand how fast a thief can siphon money from an account, ABC News experimentally opened a Visa account. It only took 15 minutes before a hacker got hungry.
"We had a hit from a retailer in Massachusetts," said Clements. The culprit used the credit card number to buy Dominos Pizza. "So there is your charge for $39.76. It looks like some kid might have found the card in this chat room and decided to buy his buddies pizzas."
According to Dominos, the hacker used the Internet to order delivery to an address in Mass.
Taking control of a credit card number is one thing, but what's really devastating is when crooks have all of your financial information. Once they have a full profile, they can open up new accounts entirely under a different name.
Hackers sometimes post peoples' financial information online, for free, to prove to fellow hackers that they've got the goods: viable financial information for sale.
"So we have a person, Dean in Michigan. His social security number. His driver's license. DOB. Mother's maiden name," said Clements. "In the room and so all 300 of these hackers have it all in real time."
"This guy Dean is going to be hurting the rest of his life. His identity is completely exposed," he said.
Identity Theft: How Thieves Do It
So how do the thieves do it? Phishing is still the number one threat, where crooks send e-mails that look like they're from your bank and ask for all your financial information.
"These people who have never been on the Internet go, 'Oh, that's my bank,'" said Clements. "They fill it out, they hit submit and it goes to the hacker's e-mail address. Then they have all this person's info... A lot of people fall for it."
Crooks often get people's pins through a technique called shoulder surfing.
"When you use your card in a retailer and you put in your pin number, there are cameras all over looking at you putting in that pin number," Clements said. "And many times the clerk will take your transaction and look at your Visa or MasterCard number and they'll rewind the video tape and they'll see you put in your pin number."
And if there aren't any convenient cameras they can check, the bad guys often install their own.
Also, even if your credit card is in your wallet, it doesn't mean it's safe. Thieves can buy card cloning machines right on the Internet.
"That's what they call track two information or dump information," Clements said. "That's what goes in the magnetic stripe right on the back of the credit card. All you do is take this information and encode it into the back of the magnetic stripe of the credit card and then you can go shopping."
Clements say that typically, identity thieves in chat rooms tend to be Eastern Europeans, Russians, and people from Bulgaria or Romania.
"Typically the hacker is ... stereotyped [as] a young introverted, early 20's male. They're always near a keyboard. In fact, a keyboard is near and dear to their entire life," he said. "He might have a job during the day and at night he might come here and surf and make some extra money. Because if he can make an extra $1,000 or $2,000 in Kiev or in a third world country, that's a lot of money."
And according to Clements, ego often plays a big role in the lives of hackers.
"They like to try and compromise things, to break into things," he said. "To prove they can do it."
Law enforcement can do little to protect you from these crimes.
There is no DNA. There is no blood. There is no knife. There are no guns. So it's very hard to prove who committed the crimes here," Clements said.
How to Protect Yourself
Identity protection is largely left up to the consumer. Clements advises consumers to never give out their financial information, on the phone or online, unless they initiated the contact.
"We recommend if you shop online like we all do that when you're at anniversary on your credit card -- in other words when it expires -- you get a new account number from your credit card issuer," he said. "Not a new account, but just get the new number, because that way you're fresh."
Besides inactivating old account numbers, Clements also recommends choosing a new ATM pin number every six months.
Refreshing your card and account numbers is one way for consumers to stay ahead of crooks in the fast-paced business of identity theft.
"It's a sophisticated business," Clements said. "The criminals are getting smarter."
By ELISABETH LEAMY