Forget a cat burglar scaling up your wall at night or a mugger belting you over the head as you walk home this evening: the biggest threat to your security right now is sitting at a screen somewhere invading your privacy. So we should believe, according to those behind National Identity Fraud Prevention Week.
If you’d asked me last week, I would have told you that somebody ‘gone phishing’ might have a rod on their back and a gap between their teeth. If you’re one of the ‘1 in 50′ people in Ireland who have already been the victim of identity fraud, however, you might tell me different.
When I first read the publicity surrounding the awareness initiative, I thought it was all a little far-fetched. We’ve all heard horror stories about someone whose identity has been stolen but surely these are urban myths. Who in the name of God would fancy rummaging through my bin for old documents? I’m hardly Posh Spice. And if there really was a Single White Female out there who fancied being me, sure, leave her off. She’s welcome to my debt any day.
However it seems I wasn’t thinking of the bigger picture. Because an identity thief who manages to track down, over time, my name, PPS number, birth date, credit card number etc could potentially use this information to create fraudulent accounts for their own use-and then go on one hell of a spending spree.
First up they could ‘phish’ me – not as ticklish or pleasurable an experience as it sounds, apparently. Phishing is when a thief spams the world with e-mail that appears to come from a legitimate source such as a bank or software company and, under some false pretense, asks you to submit credit card information or other personal data. Frequently they’ll send you to a very legitimate looking web site to capture this information. Don’t go for it. It’s a lie. Legitimate companies do not do this.
A person wishing to steal someone’s identity can also get information from businesses or institutions by stealing records from their employer, bribing an employee who has access to the records, conning information out of employees or hacking into that organisation’s computers. Or rummaging through the local dump…less glamorous, I know, but equally effective seeing as so few people shred their bills and bank statements.
An identity thief can skim your credit or bank card or use one stolen from your purse. He or she can complete a change of address form to divert your mail to another location and then have access to your bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers or tax information. Then a new credit card can be sent to this address and maybe a loan taken out in your name. With your information it is easy for the impostor to establish phone or wireless service in your name. If arrested at any time they can give the gardai your name and when they do not show up for the court appearance a warrant for arrest will be issued in your name. Okay, so that’s in an extreme situation. But it could happen.
As part of National Identity Fraud Prevention Week, the public have been advised of certain measures which could safeguard their identity, including checking financial statements and bills against receipts. What I found particularly helpful was the online test at www.stop-idfraud.ie, designed to calculate how at risk you are. After answering ten questions, it gave me an ‘Amber light’ rating and warned me to invest in a shredder to destroy unwanted documents and not to throw away any entire bills and bank statements in my name.
If you’re still feeling paranoid, I’d recommend you check out the book Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan, by Frank Abagnale – the Hollywood pin-up for identity theft. Abagnale, who was portrayed by Leonardo di Caprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can, gained renown as the young man who made a couple of million dollars by concocting false identities. He’s now working with the FBI and making a fine living as a financial security entrepreneur (who better, when you think about it).
According to Abagnale, technology breeds crime and much of identity theft crime is beyond your control, for example key private information for thousands of individuals is often lost or stolen on laptops or to hackers. But he does offer many suggestions, like photocopying the entire contents of your wallet, including both sides of your license and credit cards, so that you have all account numbers, expiration dates and phone numbers handy if your handbag is stolen. Since credit card issuers do the most to shield consumers from fraud, he advises their use over cheques, especially if the vendor wants your driver’s license number or other proof of identity. A cheque, he says, shows your address, your account number and your signature for all the world to see…and steal!