Identity theft can be devastating, both in terms of the financial losses that may result from it and also from an emotional perspective. Victims of identity theft often talk about feeling violated, in much the same way as burglary victims do, and may suffer a prolonged period of significant inconvenience as they try to sort out the mess caused by the fraudster. Additionally, victims may even find that they are being accused of the activities that are taking place in their name. Imagine, for example, if an entry appeared on your joint checking/current account stating that you had frittered away huge amounts of money in a caino. Your other half might initially take some convincing that it wasn’t you but rather a fraudster!
That might seem a relatively frivolous example but here’s a more severe case study, taken from Wikipedia’s identity theft page. “Michelle Brown, a victim of identity fraud, testified before a U.S. Senate Committee Hearing on Identity Theft. Ms. Brown testified that: “over a year and a half from January 1998 through July 1999, one individual impersonated me to procure over $50,000 in goods and services. Not only did she damage my credit, but she escalated her crimes to a level that I never truly expected: she engaged in drug trafficking. The crime resulted in my erroneous arrest record, a warrant out for my arrest, and eventually, a prison record when she was booked under my name as an inmate in the Chicago Federal Prison.” (Source: Wikipedia citing the following account, http://www.privacyrights.org/cases/victim9.htm )
Before going on to consider where and how to get help for identity theft, it’s useful to pause for a moment to define what identity theft is. The Financial Service Authority’s “Money Made Clear” website provides a good definition, stating that identity theft is “where someone impersonates you without your knowledge or consent, or uses your personal information to obtain money, goods or services.” It’s important to note that identity theft is not a new phenomenon. It has, however, become much higher profile in the last decade, as fraudsters have been able to use new technologies (such as the Internet) to steal the information that they require in order to successfully impersonate individuals and defraud them of money. To give an idea of the scale of this problem, in the UK alone, the latest estimate of the cost of identity fraud to the economy is 1.2 billion pounds. It is also often linked with organized terrorism, which just adds to its very serious nature.
It should be pretty self evident, therefore, that it’s vital that you take action if you have become a victim of identity theft or suspect that you may have been affected. Let’s look, then, at the actions that you should take and who you can turn to for help.
1. Report any lost documents or security information:
Identity fraud often follows on from the loss or theft of documents such as your driving license, passport, credit card, or debit card, or from security information (such as passwords and PINs) being compromised. If you have lost items then it’s important to report them as lost as soon as possible, to your driving license aauthority, passport office, or bank. With things like credit cards and debit cards, your bank will be able to place an immediate stop on your cards and this will help limit the amount of money that the fraudster can take. The police will also be able to put measures in place to hopefully result in the arrest of the perpetrator, for example if they try to use your passport to cross an international boundary.
2. Get hold of your credit report.
If you feel that you may be a victim of identity theft and related fraud, then you should check whether your credit report is accurate. To do this, you can contact one of the credit reference agencies in your country and ask them to provide you with a copy of your credit file. In the UK, for example, there are three credit reference agencies, Experian, Equifax, and Call Credit and any of them will be able to supply the necessary details. Reviewing your credit file should help identify any instances of entries appearing from organizations that you don’t remember transacting with.
3. What to do if you have been a victim of identity theft:
As already mentioned, it’s important that you report any lost documents or your suspicion that any bank passwords and/or PINs have been compromised. However, there are some additional steps that you should take. These include:
– Report the fraud to your bank. They will have a fraud department (which always amuses me as surely it should be an anti fraud department?!) who will log the case incident and will then investigate the fraud and liaise with the police to pursue the criminals, and hopefully recover any lost money. They will also be able to advise on the compensation schemes that may be applicable. Ask your bank to freeze your online banking, telephone banking and mobile phone banking access. All these services typically require a combination of security credentials in order for you to transact. If you feel that the fraudster may have access to the relevant security details, then it’s important that you get that fraud access blocked off. You will then be able to create new security details to regain access the service at a later point.
– Consider also asking online websites (such as ebay and Amazon) to freeze your accounts as this may be another way for the fraudster to pose as you and spend your money. Monitor your bank and credit card statements and pinpoint unusual transactions. Make sure then that you notify your bank and/or credit card provider that you didn’t make those transactions and that they are kept fully informed of the ongoing problems that you are suffering. In some circumstances, it may be necessary (or prudent) to ask your bank to close your existing account and open a new one for you. This will thwart the fraudster if they are relying on their knowledge of your existing sort code, account number, etc. Remember also to change the general security password that bank branches use to identify you. Often people still use their mother’s maiden name, which is easily guessable, but you can change it to anything you like. Contact your mail provider if you suspect that your mail is being fraudulently redirected.
– Contact the police. Obviously identity theft is a very serious crime and all crimes should be reported to the police. In theory, if you’ve reported the fraud to your bank, then the bank will contact the police. However, just to be on the safe side, I would suggest proactively reporting it to your local police station to ensure that they have a record of it from an early point. Additional support:
As well as your bank and your local police, there are a number of additional resources that may help you to get through what can be a very traumatic experience. If you have a local Citizen’s Advice Bureau, then they may be a useful and friendly source of advice. Additionally, there is a mass of advice on the Internet and I have included links to a few websites at the end of this article. Most of these are UK-centric but there will be equivalent websites for other jurisdictions that a quick Google search should unearth.
Some identity theft reference websites: