How to protect yourself from identity Theft
The recent enquiries on the extent of American spying of European governments have led to outrage among policymakers and leaders around the world. But while the issue talks about breach of data on the national level, it also has consequences that affect the average citizen. At the centre of the spying issue is the problem of data theft and, every day, many people fall victim to one of its kin: identity theft.
But what is identity theft and why should we be wary of it?
What is identity theft?
According to Action Fraud, Britain’s national fraud reporting centre, identity theft is the act of stealing or accessing information about a person’s identity (including name, date of birth, addresses) without that person’s permission or knowledge. Often this involves the intention of misrepresenting that person for gain.
A 2012 research for UK Fraud Prevention Month revealed that, in Britain, 1.8 million people fall victim to identity theft yearly. The country also loses £2.7 billion (roughly €3.2 billion) annually because of it. The figures are bigger in the US where, according to the American justice department, 11.5 million people fall victim to identity theft every year. As of June 2013, losses have amounted to $21 billion or €15 billion.
The 2012 research also revealed that Brits are the most at risk of identity theft in Europe: 25% of the population was recorded to have been victims of crime due to identity theft, while the European average was at 17%. In addition, one out of 10 Brits have been targeted by criminals using paper-based scams where the victims send their personal information through post.
What can happen once a person steals our personal information? When a criminal uses our name for financial gain, we become a victim of identity fraud.
A criminal who has our personal information often
targets credit or debit cards and insurance policies for gain. Someone who uses our information can steal our money or commit crimes using our names. But in general, with our personal information, a criminal can easily do the following:
- Open bank accounts
- Get credit cards, loans, and other benefits
- Order items or shop online
- Take over existing accounts
- Obtain genuine documents
Victims of fraud often face great financial loss. The 2012 research said that Brits lose an average of £1,076 (€1,279) per victim. Germans face a greater loss at an average of £28,666 (€34,082) per victim while Italians lose an average of £13,180 (€15,670) per victim.
Victims often don’t know they have become a target of identity theft until they notice unusual activities in their financial statements. Some signs that can tell us that someone’s using our personal information include:
- Bills for purchases or services we didn’t ask for
- Accounts or policies that have been depleted without our knowledge
- E-mails in our name that we haven’t sent personally
How are criminals stealing our personal information?
What is alarming is that there are many ways criminals steal our information without our knowing about it. Sometimes we may be personally duped into revealing our information; other times the criminals rely on institutions with poor security to steal large amounts of data.
Here are some ways criminals get hold of our personal information:
- Scams. Criminals may impersonate officials from banks or financial institutions and ask for our personal identity and security information. Often these email scams follow the institution’s templates and carry official signatures, but banks and institutions never ask for sensitive material online, except when you are trying to log in into your internet banking account.
- Stalking. Stalking online and in real life is still an effective way for criminals to take our basic information. We often indicate our email, addresses, birthday and contact information in social networks and personal websites to keep in touch and alert friends. Be wary that online profiles can be used to steal identities and crack passwords. Meanwhile, bills that we throw out can still be picked up and used to get our information.
- Digital banking services. Banks are now going modern by making their services accessible via smartphones and computers. But various hacking programmes and softwares like Trojans and malwares are also becoming more sophisticated, allowing criminals to steal information like usernames and passwords from banks and users while they transact online.
- Medical information. Our personal information and complete medical record can be looted when the security systems of hospitals are breached, often by third-party contractors who have access to the network. With our medical records in their hands, criminals can easily deplete our medical insurances and policies.
- Breach of government and other company data. Government institutions and big companies are not resistant to hacking and other attempts to infiltrate their systems. Our valuable personal information is being kept by these institutions, and criminals can easily gain access to a wealth of information by finding a crack in the security system.