Identity theft affects many Australians each and every year, and if your identity is stolen it can have a significant emotional and financial impact on you and your family.
What is identity theft?
Identity theft is the fraudulent practice of someone using your name and other personal information in order to obtain credit, loans, or other financial gain.
There are a few warning signs that you have been a victim of identity theft:
- You get an email, SMS or phone call out of the blue asking to “validate” or “confirm” your details.
- You notice amounts of money go missing from your bank account without explanation.
- You are unable to obtain credit or a loan due to an inexplicably bad credit rating.
How does identity theft work?
Identity theft can occur in many ways – from somebody using your credit or debit card details illegally to make purchases, to having your entire identity assumed by another person to open bank accounts, take out loans, and conduct illegal business under your name.
Before someone can use your identity, they need to gain sufficient information about you in order to convince organisations they are you.
The amount of information they need depends on the severity of the identity theft.
For credit card fraud, they may only need your card. While, to assume your entire identity, they would need significantly more information, although it can start with very little information which is built on over time.
Information such as your full name, date of birth, and passwords for websites, for example, can allow an identity thief to gain documents like Medicare cards, bank cards, passports and other official documentation to then open accounts and apply for loans – all in your name.
How do identity thieves get your info?
There are many ways identity thieves can obtain your information. Here are the most common ones:
- “Dumpster diving”
- Change your address
- Old-fashioned stealing
One of the oldest forms of gaining information, thieves rummage through trash looking for bills or other paperwork that contains personal information.
How to avoid this: make sure you shred all your documents before disposing of them.
Identity thieves use small portable devices to “skim” your card details from the magnetic strip on your cards. These devices can be fitted to ATMs or used by unscrupulous sales assistants to record your card details.
How to avoid this: Make sure the ATM you are using doesn’t have any additional devices attached, and be alert when buying something over the counter and make sure the sales assistant doesn’t run your card through more than one machine or take your card out of sight to process the sale.
Identity thieves pretend to be financial institutions or other companies and contact you via phone, letter, or email to get you to reveal your personal information. They may have some information about you already and want you to reveal more.
How to avoid this: Never give out private or sensitive information when contacted. Contact (or visit) the financial institution directly using a recognised phone number (one you look up yourself) and inquire about the request for your personal information.
Changing Your Address
Your billing statements can be diverted to another location by completing a change of address form.
How to avoid this: Apply for electronic statements from your financial institution and be aware of missing correspondence that you receive regularly.
Identity thieves steal wallets and purses; mail, including bank and credit card statements; pre-approved credit offers; and tax information. They can also steal personnel records, or bribe employees who have access.
How to avoid this: Be aware where your purse, wallet, and mobile devices are while out and about. Also, make sure your mail box is secure and keep an eye out for any mail you are expecting.
Identity thieves pretend they are someone they are not to gain personal information about you. This information could come from you or from financial institutions, telephone companies, and other sources.
How to avoid this: Don’t answer any questions that ask for personal information from anyone you don’t know or cannot verify.
What can you do to prevent identify theft?
While identity theft is a frightening prospect, there are ways to prevent it:
- Where possible opt for electronic mail. You could have two email addresses: one that you give out to financial institutions and government agencies, and the other to be used for friends, family, online shopping and so on.
- Ask the bank to issue you with two cards, one for use on the internet and the other for general shopping. It is also prudent to have an alternate savings account which you can use to transfer the relevant balance required for your purchase on the day you expect to be debited.
- See if you can setup over the phone passwords for financial institutions as this will make it a lot harder for someone that has access to all your personal information to make any account changes in their favour where a bank is vigilant in their security questioning.
- Take care when using an ATM e.g. hide your PIN and don’t perform transactions if you feel others are too close to the machine or in a location where they would see you entering a PIN number.
- Log directly onto websites rather than clicking on links provided in an email.
- Regularly check your credit card and/or bank statements to ensure that suspicious transactions are detected.
- Restrict private information about yourself and your family in public and on social media websites.
For further information you can download the Australian Government’s Protecting Your Identity guide.
What to do if your identity is stolen
If you are a victim of identity theft there are a few things you should do:
- Contact iDcare, which is a free service victims of identity theft can call to get assistance. Call 1300 432 273.
- Call the police and retain a copy of the police report
- Call your financial institution and inform them your identity has been compromised
- Inform government agencies such as Medicare, the ATO, Department of Transport, Marriage and Birth Registry, and so on of your situation
- Get a short-term ban on your credit report if you believe your identity has been stolen. This will prevent your credit file from being affected by any fraudulent activity.
- Call and report the incident to SCAMwatch on 1300 795 995
Identity theft can have great ramifications to those who if affects, but there are ways to keep yourself safe. It is also good to know there are ways to mitigate the damage if you are affected.
By staying safe and vigilant, you can protect yourself and your family from the threat identity theft poses.