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Internet Identity Theft

National Identity Fraud Prevention Week or Was it "Identity Theft for Dummies?"

  By Vincent Woodall

National Identity Fraud Prevention Week ran from the 17th – 23rd October last year for the first time. There was a great deal of publicity regarding identity fraud as might have been expected but was it perhaps a case of “too much information”? It is certainly understandable that a great deal of information was given about how to prevent identity fraud and what to do if you fell victim to it. However, there was also a great deal of information given that would certainly help the criminally-inclined who might otherwise never have thought that this was a way to make some easy money.

Identity theft is growing fast, costing around £1.7 billion and affecting up to 100,000 people each year. Strangely, it's not a crime at the moment although the Government is considering making it one. It only becomes a crime when a stolen identity is actually used to obtain goods and services by deception at which point it becomes known as identity fraud.

Banks alone acknowledge about £500m of such fraud a year in the UK - up from £213m in 2000 and £62m in 1995. But banking insiders recently told the newspaper “Scotland on Sunday” that as much as another £500m was discovered by the industry but never reported to police, under a controversial policy of dealing in-house with any theft of £2,000 or less.

Somebody once said that if you want to know what is going to be happening in the UK in ten years time, then you need only look at what is happening in the USA today. Unfortunately, with the scourge that is identity fraud, the UK is very much in danger of catching up with the USA in less than ten years. Almost 20% of consumers in the USA admit to falling victim to identity theft. Younger adults are most at risk according to Experian-Gallup Personal Credit Index published on the 4th August 2005. Identity theft in the UK is rapidly on the up, with an increase of 165% over the available figures for 2004 according to Credit reference agency Experian. It has been suggested that over 100,000 people will have been the victims of identity theft in the UK in 2005 (and the figure is rising year on year) and it is estimated that this will have cost the British economy over £1.7 billion (and again the figure is rising). It can also take up to 300 hours of your time to repair your credit record if you become a victim of this particular crime. Many victims do not discover their identity has been stolen for an average of 18 months.

However, is it any wonder that this particular crime is on the increase, when so much detailed information is given as to how identity thieves go about their task? I am reminded of an article I read in one of the tabloid newspapers only a few months ago, in which a convicted burglar, originally from Eastern Europe, explained how he had learnt valuable tips of the trade from, of all places, a police website. The same could be said about identity theft but this information is not confined to police websites. If you were to type in “identity theft” into the Google UK search engine, you would see that this returns some 775,000 results. Now not all of these results are specifically about identity theft. However thousands of these results describe in detail how easily identity thieves go about stealing other people’s identities.

Some of the things you might discover if you were to carry out a search for the term “identity theft” are:

• The increase in the practice of bin-raiding (dumpster-diving as it is known in the USA – and the American courts have decided that dumpster-diving is not in itself illegal) where a would-be identity thief goes through the contents of your dustbin to see if you have carelessly discarded information that could be used in helping to “steal” your identity. Identity theft often occurs because someone has been careless with personal or business information. UK credit reference agency Experian, in co-operation with the London Borough of Camden, analysed the contents of the dustbins of 327 domestic homes and 71 companies and organisations to assess the potential for identity fraud (apparently bin raiders in certain parts of London are paid up to £5 a document by would-be identity thieves). Some of the information found included the names, addresses and mobile telephone numbers of well known film and television stars that had been discarded by a film and theatrical agency. Photocopies of passports with passport numbers, dates of birth and photographs of customers had been thrown out by a travel agent. Full financial details of applicants for courses at an educational establishment had been put into dustbins. Detailed scaled plans of NHS hospitals and other public buildings had been thrown out by an architect. Full medical records of the patients of a doctor’s surgery had been thrown away. Signed witness statements and sworn affidavits had been discarded by a barrister’s chambers. A PR company had thrown out embargoed press releases and bank account details of its clients. A mortgage broker had discarded numerous completed mortgage applications containing full financial details of its clients.

Apart from the above, one in ten domestic households was found to have discarded a complete combination of credit or debit card number, with expiry date, issue number and signature. This would have proved a golden opportunity for someone to carry out card-not-present fraud which is one of the fastest growing ID frauds in the UK and costs £110 million a year. Small wonder that many if not all credit and debit card companies now insist on the three-digit security number from such cards being taken for such card-not-present transactions. Chip and Pin is now becoming more commonplace for cardholder present transactions involving credit and debit cards.

Many other assorted articles were also found in this selection of dustbins including mortgage statements, bank account numbers and balances, a cheque book complete with ten cheques, an uncashed cheque, medical information, an MP’s signature, CVs, driving licences and a death certificate. Jill Stevens, Consumer Relations Director at Experian, commented “….as consumers, we are all still binning far too much personal information which can and is being used by fraudsters to fuel the current boom in ID fraud”.

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