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This eastern Texas city of about 120,000 and its metro area leads the nation in per-capita identity-manipulation attempts, according to an April report from ID Analytics, a firm that screens credit-card applications for fraud.

What exactly is identity manipulation? It’s when fraudsters apply for credit cards and other financial products using false names, Social Security numbers, addresses or dates of birth. It differs from its cousin, identity theft, in that specific victims aren’t targeted.

“A fraudster will apply for…a credit-card account with a fictitious name or a slightly modified Social Security number,” explains Stephen Coggeshall, chief technology officer at ID Analytics. “He’ll continue at that until he has a successful application.”

Some people do this to escape a bad credit history or criminal past, while others are trying to create an alter ego that can rack up bills that they won’t have to pay, says Robert Siciliano, an identity-theft expert at McAfee, a computer-security firm. Some undocumented immigrants looking to build a new identity also practice identity manipulation, he says.

It’s unclear if identity manipulation is a new phenomenon; experts say they’ve just started looking out for it in the last few years. Because it’s difficult to figure out if the information on an application is fake or not, the tactic often works, says Coggeshall.

It’s hardly a victimless crime, he says. While identity manipulators don’t target specific individuals, many of these fraudsters inadvertently wind up using someone else’s Social Security number anyway.  And credit-card companies and businesses where consumers pay without their card present (like online stores) are typically left with the tab when the identity manipulators don’t pay the bills.

Seven other Texas cities ranked in the top 20 for identity manipulation. Three Michigan cities (Detroit, Flint and Lansing) were also on the list.

Texas’s proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border likely plays a role in the prevalence of identity manipulators, says Coggeshall.  In Michigan, recent economic woes may be to blame.

Both states were among the top 15 for per-capita identity-theft complaints in 2011, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The Beaumont Police Department has seen an uptick in identity-related fraud, and during tax season got four or five complaints a day from residents whose taxes were filed by identity thieves, says David Kiker, lieutenant in charge of the property-crimes division. The Michigan State Police also says identity manipulation is on the rise.

The single worst identity manipulator ID Analytics found was a New Yorker who goes by the name of Frank. He’s used 146 different Social Security numbers and seven dates of birth. The runner-up: an individual using the alias Jamal from Cleveland, with 106 Social Security numbers.