Identity Theft: Can I Prevent It?
My Shocking Story
One evening, many years ago, I opened my door to a man who asked for the mountain bike that he had just bought on e-Bay. An uneasy feeling stole over me.
“I think you have come to the wrong address,” I said.
“No,’ he said, calling my exact address from the piece of paper he held in his hand.
“I’ve never owned a mountain bike,” I told him. “I don’t even cycle, and I don’t advertise on e-Bay.”
His expression changed and he shouted: “I’ve been robbed”.
He hurried away immediately and I never saw him or heard about the matter again. For a long time, I had convinced myself that he was an actor rehearsing for a play but with the rise and rise of ID fraud, I am not so sure. As time has passed, I have grown angrier and angrier at the notion of someone plucking my address from a street directory and using it to steal money on the pretext of having an item for sale.
Happily, no-one blamed me for the incident; anyone can poach an address in this manner, which is why it is so hard to catch the perpetrators of fraud. I am not sure how e-Bay actually works; I have heard that they have taken steps to stop scams like this, but knowing this does not put my mind at rest. There is something particularly horrible about your personal details poached for whatever purpose. Your name and your personal history are the most profound things that belong to you. Social security fraud, for instance, is particularly nasty crime, usually uncovered when a person claims a benefit and discovers that his or her number is in use by someone else. This can prove a double blow for the person who has just lost a job or has fallen ill.
The Many Faces of ID Fraud
The media reports on ID fraud more and more often these days, and all the time I worry about someone stealing my identity again, even for a simple fraud like the one I outline above. Once in possession of your identity, a fraudster can open a bank account in your name, apply for social benefits, borrow large sums of money or even take out a mortgage. Since the thieves usually default on these debts, your credit reputation remains in tatters, possibly forever.
Recently, I trawled the Internet, looking for accounts of other victims of assumed identity. They were scarily easy to find and terrifying to read. From the links below, I found accounts of people using the identities of others to work in a job or to obtain benefits. In Florida, a young woman discovered that she was officially “in jail”, when a long-term and much trusted flat mate assumed her appearance and stole her identity before committing crime. Another woman was stunned to discover that, following the theft of her driver’s license, she had just given birth and landed a $10,000 bill from the hospital. A New York woman went to take out a marriage license, and discovered that she had been “married” twice before. Her own, legitimate wedding went ahead anyway. Three years later, an Ecuadorian man approached her, seeking a divorce. The woman has traced the frauds to a lost birth certificate when she was sixteen, and she believes her ID is in use by illegal immigrants for the purpose of obtaining work permits. She had to show the Ecuadorian her wedding photos to prove that she wasn’t married to him. She has since been “married” to a third, mysterious suitor.
Even the rich and famous are not immune. In 2001, Abraham Abdallah stole information from a number of credit score companies and used it to obtain cash in the names of luminaries like Steven Spielberg and Warren Buffet. In England, a well-know television personality had over £100 K taken from her bank account by a fraudster who simply walked into the banking branch and filled out a form given her by a clerk. The TV personality has since declared that she has lost all trust in banks.
The stories just go on and on, beggaring the imaginations of the foremost thriller writers. The most shocking example is that of an Australian woman who discovered that she was wanted by the international police, on suspicion of an assassination attempt in the Middle East. Her passport had simply been swiped electronically - she still has the original – and the criminals made use of her ID.
Simple Preventative Measures
The Internet does play a role in fraud, certainly, what with credit card numbers being picked from vulnerable online shopping sites and our images constantly showing on social media. However, all ID fraud is not committed online and the following list outlines a number of measures that you can put in place to guard against the more common kinds of theft.
Take good care of your wallet
The majority of wallets normally contain plastic debit and credit cards, a store advantage card or two, social security number, driving license and works’ id card. Even if you take great care not to scribble down PIN details on a piece of paper next to the cards – and a number of people actually do this – a thief going through your property can learn a lot about you, like who you bank with, your address and where you work. Information like this is invaluable when filling in a fraudulent application for work or bank credit. Ladies should consider not carrying address books in their purses, information that makes their friends vulnerable. Take great care of your birth certificate and your passport; even old passports provide useful information for fraudsters.
Symptoms to Watch Out For
One way that fraudsters can help themselves to your personal life is to go to the Post Office with your name and address, and ask for your post to be redirected to an address they give. Previously, prevention experts advised the public to be on the alert for significant items of post, like monthly bank statements, that have mysteriously stopped coming through. However, with more and more institutions requesting that we go “paperless” for their convenience, even this possibility is waning. Keep a record of all transactions - inconvenient though this is - and check your bank accounts at least once a month.
This crime has become so common, it is amazing that people still fall for it. What happens is that you receive an invite from a bank or another financial organisation, asking you to click on a link within the email in order to “confirm” whatever account is attached. Of course, the link does not connect to the named bank at all, but to a site set up for the purpose of “phishing” your password, PIN and other information about you. With your information in their hands, the thieves can then access your bank account and help themselves. When this type of crime began, the quality of the fraudulent material was terrible; misspelled words and other details out of place. This alerted a number of members of the public to the fraud, but by no means everyone. In recent times, I have received a number of very convincing emails, requesting my details. However, all of the major financial institutions insist that they NEVER place links within emails. If you receive an email like this, do not click the link - which can also trigger off spyware on your computer - but delete it immediately. Another indication that something is wrong is an email addressing you “Dear Sir/Madam”, rather than using your exact name.
Be Wary of What You Throw Away
Never throw documents bearing your name and address into paper recycling banks without first shredding them. Previously, identity bandits harvested personal details off of discarded job application forms and other documents. People also abandon old computers, presuming that the data on the hard disk is useless; not so. Computer experts can access magnetic stores of data using special devices and often find a trove of material to work with. Before sending an old computer to a recycling outfit, get a professional to wipe the hard disk clean.
Outright Identity Theft
NEVER give personal information over the phone. The media is filled with stories of people who thought that they were handing their personal information to a legitimate company for perfectly reasonable reasons, only to find that their bank accounts have been robbed of money or an item that they did not order has been purchased in their name. I am not talking about inconsiderable sums of money. Several years ago, two brothers received a bill for nearly £20,000 from a high street bank, only to find that someone had purchased a car in their names. The really horrible thing was that, in spite of the very obviously fraudulent transaction, the bank would not cancel the debt, insisting that they - the bank - had made all reasonable checks on the borrowing subject. They concluded that the brothers had been careless with their personal details and held them responsible for the fraud.
Requesting Credit File Protection
I wrote to Experian, the UK-based credit reference agency and asked them how I might best protect my credit information. A person wrote back, requesting me to request that the following note is attached to my credit file (phew!). The person wrote out a sample request for me:
"I, (your name), wish to inform lenders that I believe my details are being used fraudulently in attempts to obtain credit in my name. I therefore wish to use the password "XXXXXXX" in any genuine credit application made by myself".
I have done it; I don't see how it can prevent my address being used fraudulently in the way I describe above. I only hope it will protect me from a person gaining credit in my name. Only time will tell.