Identity Theft

Identity theft is a relatively new phenomenon. It has been in the news a few times but is something that's really in its infancy. Generally, Identity thieves are after sufficient information about a person that will enable them to purchase things and make cash withdrawals at somebody else's expense. The point is that the victim is rarely the target of the crime. the victim is often just a hapless bystander. The criminal - like all criminals - wants things and money but is too idle to work for them in the normal way. The fact that they do 10 times as much work as everybody else in order to get the information etc. doesn't seem to occur to them.

Who are Identity thieves? It's not really possible to identify a specific group as identity thieves. It's like asking whether all the people in London left-handed. Obviously, the people who do it are technically capable but they're not all the aggrieved computer "nerds" and "geeks" that popular fiction imagines. The only things that do bind identity thieves together is time - Identity theft takes time and patience. It also takes privacy and investigative powers. Frequently such people work alone although groups can be involved. Those that seem to be convicted in the courts seem mostly to be disaffected and unemployed teenagers - frequently with a grudge against society or an immature outlook. Having said that, organised criminals in the former USSR are very keen on credit card fraud - a form of identity theft.

How do identity thieves work? Mostly they work via the Internet. The press likes the idea of criminals rooting though the rubbish bins and stealing sacks of rubbish in order to read the details off bank statements etc. The reality is though that while that might be the case for some criminals and the would-be sleuths of this world, most criminals prefer to sit in a nice, warm house, drinking cold beer while they commit their crimes. Criminals - like other people - see no reason why they should go outside if they can make a living inside. Some of the information can come from bogus web sites they set up. It's relatively easy to set up a bogus web site that takes credit card information. This site, for example, doesn't take credit card information - instead, the "Buy Key" buttons redirect the user to a German web site that specialises in online software sales. It would, however, be quite easy to set up a site with bogus buttons that ask for the user's credit card number and address etc. Once the thief has that information, it can be used to buy things online. In August 2002, a spammer in Russia sent out an email offering credit card numbers that had been stolen. Obviously an astute user should check that the site from which they're ordering is genuine but how many people check to see whether there's a padlock in the bottom right hand panel of their web browser or that the web page address begins https?

How do I guard against identity theft? There is no sure and certain way to guard against it. While people can get credit cards issued to their pet dog, criminals can get credit cards from credit companies. The best advice is:

  1. Keep copies of all bank statements, credit card bills etc.

  2. Keep copies of all receipts etc.

  3. Don't buy anything online or over the telephone unless you can verify the company is genuine - No address equals no business. Don't be satisfied that the address is genuine. Check the telephone book to make sure the company exists where it says it does and ring the number in the phone book and verify the web site is genuine. The council in the company's locality - particularly the Consumer Protection department can occasionally be helpful in providing information.

  4. Don't let your credit cards out of your sight.

  5. Whether home or abroad, make sure you know where your passport is - at all times. When abroad - if you trust your hotel - lock it in their safe or carry it on your person (preferably tucked away in a pocket no thief can reach).

  6. Shred all official correspondence once it is no longer required.

  7. Tick the "Do not share my address with others" box on every form you complete.

  8. Do not allow the phone company to list your details in the phone book. Not only will this stop the majority of telephone canvassers but it will also keep your information off the internet. All phone books are available for viewing via the internet. Somebody in Australia can check to see the phone number of Bill Nobody of No Street, No Town in Britain, if they desired.

  9. Do not store your personal details online. It's quite common for bored children to hack into web sites and email inboxes and then to prove they have done so by posting the details on newsgroups.

  10. Do not store your credit card details on your own PC. Microsoft Wallet, for example, is secure only until somebody gets a virus onto your system that will transmit the contents to their email account.

  11. If you publish your resum online or send it to a recruitment company online, omit the details of your referees and both your home address and your home phone number. If the recruitment company is genuine, it'll understand and cooperate. If not, it'll come out with vague threats or nag for the address.

  12. Your address can be traced from your phone number. A few years ago, a free CD was available that allowed people to see anybody's contact details. The full version of the CD cost a mere two hundred pounds. As the owner of one business remarked: "That's the equivalent of only four bounced cheques". Once your phone number has been entered, your address can be traced along with a list of everybody living with you. Don't publish your phone number.

  13. Don't automatically assume you have privacy. Privacy is a right that everybody had before computers took it away. Now one must work hard to maintain one's privacy and safety.

How do I know that I'm the victim of identity theft?

  1. Strange entries and charges appear on your phenol.

  2. Strange entries and charges appear on your credit card bill.

  3. Strange direct debits or withdrawals appear on your bank/building society statements.

  4. Share transactions are documented that you know nothing of.

  5. Bills start to appear from organisations of which you know nothing.

  6. Strange letters start to arrive, demanding payment or notifying you of your account status or that an account has been opened.

  7. The Police or Customs and Excise come visiting, looking for people you've never heard of or asking about items about which you've never heard.

  8. Speeding tickets or Parking tickets begin to arrive for cars you don't own or for cars that you do but about times and places that are inconsistent with your movements.

  9. Road tolls arrive that are inconsistent with your movements.

What do I do if I suspect I am the victim of identity theft?

  1. Be very suspicious of the evidence. If it comes in the form of a letter, take it to the police as evidence of possible identity theft. It could be somebody writing a spurious letter in the hope of a reply, confirming your existence.

  2. Alert your phone, credit card companies and banks to your suspicious and give the reasons.

  3. Inform the police and insist on being given a crime number.

  4. Do not wait for more evidence to arrive. Act quickly but don't forget to check to see whether it's a genuine bill for something you have bought for yourself.

  5. Keep copies of everything. It may be necessary to prove your financial record over the last few years.

  6. Keep copies of all your receipts and travel tickets. You might have to prove you were in a different country.

It's a lot of work to do to keep safe. It's a lot of work to do to prove your innocence too and it requires constant vigilance to ensure your identity is not stolen. The world is getting increasingly less safe, with online bandits and real-world bandits taking over both the internet and the streets. The watchword of the 21st century is vigilance just as it was in the 19th.