Have you been a victim of identity theft? Or worried that you might be? One reader sent in his experience to help warn others and explain what to do and where to get help!
Identity theft – it could happen to you!
Lately I haven’t been myself. Just before Christmas I discovered someone had stolen my identity.
A well-known international bank wrote to me saying they were ‘regrettably’ declining my credit card application. Only, I never applied for one of their credit cards. I’m not a customer of this bank.
As small consolation I discovered I’m in good company. More common than robbery, theft, assault and car theft, the Australian Attorney-General reports that every 20 seconds, one Australian falls victim to identity theft.
The cost of identity theft
Just under a million of us experienced some form of identity theft in 2016, with the average financial loss being $400 per family, but many more experiencing far greater loss.
The emotional costs of realising you are the victim of this type of theft can be as devastating as coming home to find your house robbed. I certainly felt violated. It’s fair to say my family and I were alarmed, but not alert to this kind of theft. Until it happened to us.
How to start to recover your identity.
These are the steps our family took, that you can also take, to better safeguard against this insidious crime.
Firstly, don’t assume recovering your identity will be a quick fix. I spent countless hours on the phone – to the bank in question – navigating internal call centres and explaining my story again and again. The American ‘Federal Trade Commission’ estimates that recovering from identity theft takes an average of six months and 200 hours of work.
It certainly felt like 200 hrs to me, but in slightly less time than this I eventually got through to someone at the bank who cheerily confirmed they had received ‘my’ application. Unfortunately they could not provide me with further details for ‘reasons of privacy’? If I wanted this detail I could send them a police statement and a statutory declaration.
The police refused to take my statement as I could not tell them if the attempted theft was online or paper-based.
Recognising this Catch-22, I gave up on the bank, and pursued my own research. Turns out there are many methods criminals use to steal our details.
Some ways criminal steal your identity:
- Stolen credit or identity cards used to impersonate the victims and pay for items, to apply for loans or, in the worst cases, build an alternative identity
- ‘Phishing’ emails or telephone scams that dupe us into providing personal information
- ‘Malware’ software that we unknowingly download onto our computers and devices which then secretly forwards our recorded details to criminals
- Credit cards are physically or virtually ‘skimmed’ using EFTPOS devices or wireless versions of these
- Pinhole cameras hidden on ATMs and/or fake covers placed over the ATM’s card slot to record your pin and/or skim your card’s details
- Personal information is hacked from an online retailers’ or government databases
- It seems almost ‘old fashioned’, but some criminals still go through post or rubbish to find discarded bills and statements.
Amazed at the criminal resourcefulness of others, I turned my attention to what I should actually do about it.
What should you do if you are a victim of identity theft?
Aware that everybody has a credit report, and that every credit application and credit transaction affects our credit scores, my wife and I paid a small sum to a commercial organisation to access our individual credit reports. Sure enough, there was ‘my’ recent application for the credit card, on my record.
But how could I set my credit record straight? I needed a police statement for the bank. Over and above this, I suffer from a persistent case of Catholic guilt. Once, when I was a kid, a friend and I fished money from a local wishing well with a net on a pole. It took us all day, and we recovered 32 cents. Sixteen cents each. Forty years later I still feel ashamed.
What if, by my not reporting this, other decent law-abiding Australian families suffered as a result, I worried?
So, a quick web search led me to the Federal Government’s ‘Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network’ or ACORN which let me make a statement online, and receive a reference number. Problem solved.
Armed with these details I approached the bank again and, after some hours on the phone, managed to get someone to inform the credit agency I had not applied for the card. I checked my credit record. My credit score had risen.
While we already knew never to provide personal details in response to unsolicited online requests, my wife and I have now further secured our online presence by changing all our passwords – something we now do regularly. We also no longer use the same password across multiple sites.
If you struggle to remember all these passwords, you can purchase ‘Password Manager’ software that helps manage and remember myriad passwords.
We’ve made sure our computers and other devices have up-to-date virus and malware software installed and we now subscribe to an online identity watch service, from the same company we check our credit records with.
This service constantly searches the web for our families’ personal information and alerts us directly if any of our details have been compromised. There are a few Australian companies offering this service.
These days we read every bank statement and regularly check our online transactions to see if we can spot any that seem unusual. In nearly all cases, if informed of a fraudulent transaction immediately, banks will cancel and reissue credit cards and refund lost money.
We also shred old statements before putting them in the bin. Just to be sure.
While none of the above can ever completely protect us, we now feel our family’s personal and financial details are more secure.
As a postscript, the bank in question eventually emailed me a document that was, presumably, an outcome of their investigation. It was security-encrypted and I couldn’t open it.
By: Peter Heilbuth