How Secure is Your Identity?

Crime Stoppers and the attorney-general’s office both say that identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes, but steps can be taken to avoid it.
Identity theft occurs when your personal information is stolen and used to perform illicit activities or make financial transactions in your name. One of the most common forms of identity theft is personal information being stolen from your mailbox.

The process of having to prove your identity once it has been stolen is time consuming, traumatic and may take years to resolve, with huge financial losses. Once an unpaid account goes to default stage, the account may be listed by the creditor as a default on your credit file. Under current legislation, defaults remain on your credit file for a five-year period. What is not widely known is how difficult credit repair can be. Even if you have been the victim of identity theft, there is no guarantee the defaults can be removed from your credit file.

Recent research indicates that one in five Australians are affected by identity theft each year. Moreover, an alarming 67% of Australians fail to take simple measures to protect their identity. An online survey conducted by Di Marzio Research earlier this year revealed that nine out of 10 people were either concerned or very concerned about their identity being stolen or misused. In other words, almost everyone who is online knows the potential risk they face from this crime.

A staggering 58% of identity theft occurred online, while another 30% was as the result of a credit or debit card having been stolen or lost. When the theft occurred 55% of the time it was used to purchase goods or services, with a further 26% used to obtain finance, credit or a loan. Your personal information is readily available. Cards in your wallet, public records, mail, information saved in your computers and information posted on social networking sites are all opportunities for identity theft.

“These are some of the first places a professional thief will look,” said senior sergeant Mark Standish of the Victorian Police. “Residents should consider investing in securing their valuable documentation by means of quality locking devices, such as a home safe and a secure lock on your letterbox.”

Important personal information can be accessed by a determined thief, despite your best efforts. For example:

  • Your wallet or purse is stolen with all your identifying cards
  • Your home or business is burgled and personal documents stolen
  • Important documents, such as bank statements and taxation returns, are stolen from your letterbox
  • Mail is diverted to another address without your knowledge
  • Rubbish (or that of businesses you have dealt with) may be searched
  • You are the victim of a scam and have been conned into providing personal information over the telephone or by email
  • Your personal computer may be hacked into, or hackers may get into the computers of businesses that hold your personal information
  • ATM or EFTPOS transactions may be monitored by hidden devices or seen by someone in the queue
  • Credit cards may be skimmed at retail outlets or restaurants

How to protect yourself

Peter Price OAM, the chairman of Crime Stoppers Australia, says investing in crime prevention activities has become a key charter for his organisation as a result of the increase in identity theft. By installing extra security measures, such as a home safe or locking your letterbox with a padlock that meets Australian standards, you can protect the integrity of your identity. Taking a proactive approach to home security is the first step in providing a safe and secure personal environment.

You can reduce the risk of identity theft by securing your personal and valuable information before it happens to you. Start by thinking like a criminal. Ask yourself what kind of information you have left open for fraudsters to use? Preventative steps towards reducing the risk of your identity being stolen include:

  • Aim to provide a minimum amount of information about yourself
  • Destroy (shredding) documents that reveal personal information
  • Secure your personal or business information with a safe
  • Secure your mail with a quality padlock
  • Remove your name from mailing lists if you receive unsolicited mail.
  • Check your billing and account records carefully
  • Limit the amount of credit you have in accounts.
  • Keep a list of all your accounts and credit cards in a secure place.
  • Place passwords on all your important accounts
  • Avoid using obvious passwords
  • Do not store sensitive information on mobile phones or wireless devices
  • Install anti-virus software on your computer
  • Use ‘wiping’ or ‘erasing’ software to delete files on computers that you are disposing of
  • Collect new cheque books or credit cards in person from the bank.
  • Write cheques and fill out forms carefully so that they cannot be altered easily.
  • Keep details secure on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Ensure credit card transactions online are from a secure site and that you know who you are transferring money to
  • Don’t leave anything in your car glove box that could identify you.
  • Avoid giving out personal information over the phone or by email to people you do not trust.
  • Don’t let your credit card out of your sight when paying a bill.
  • Don’t lend personal or business documents to others.
  • Don’t carry sensitive personal or business information unless you have to.

    Education also extends to knowing what is on your credit file, where discrepancies can often be your first indication that you have been a victim of identity theft. One suggestion is to obtain a free credit report every year so you know that everything on it is as it should be. That way, any problems can be rectified while there is no urgency. Under current legislation, credit reports can be obtained for free every 12 months from the major credit reporting agencies Veda Advantage, Dun and Bradstreet and Tasmanian Collection Service. Once you order one, it should be sent to you – the credit file owner – within 10 working days. Those of you who are vulnerable to identity theft can pay extra with Veda Advantage to have your file placed on an ‘alert’ system, which tracks any changes to your credit file within a 12 month period.

    If there are defaults on a credit file, you can get a credit repairer to remove them. Often, attempting to remove the default yourself can do more harm than good due to a lack of understanding of the process, and there is no appeal in most cases.

    It is important to act quickly if your personal information is compromised. Identity theft must be reported to police. Collect and keep any documentation that will help police in investigating the crime. Police may need to take your photograph or fingerprints to establish that your identity is different from that of the person who may be charged with the identity theft. The following steps (as listed on the Victorian Police website) may also be necessary:

  • Contact your bank or credit provider immediately and cancel all cards.
  • Freeze or close all accounts to which the thief may have gained access.
  • Make sure you have some way of accessing cash for the time it will take to get new cards issued.
  • Open new accounts with new PINs and passwords
  • Contact the Credit Reporting Agency and ask that an alert be placed on your file.
  • Check your credit file carefully for unauthorised transactions or changes.
  • Keep all documentary evidence of fraud.
  • Never send originals away in the mail.
  • Police and your bank can help you solve any problems arising from identity theft.Thanks to Nick Penny at ASSA ABLOY for his contribution to this article.