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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 18 December, 2002, 10:24 GMT
Losing your identity
Rubbish bin
Not a place to leave a credit card application

In the old days, losing one's identity was something that only happened to amnesia sufferers.

In these increasingly electronic days, it's becoming all too common.

More and more people are finding their identity has been stolen from them.

Crooks are using people's names, addresses and other biographical details to get credit in their name, leaving the unsuspecting target none the wiser and much the poorer.

ebay logo
eBay customers are prime targets for identity fraudsters
The result? Weeks of drudgery trying to clean up a record besmirched almost beyond repair.

And that's at best. At worst, the consequences can include being arrested for someone else's crimes committed, quite literally, in your name, and having your credit rating permanently butchered.

Some Americans have even resorted to "pseudocide" - declaring one's official identity officially dead, and starting over from scratch.

On the up

Three recent revelations have driven home just how pervasive, and dangerous, identity theft can be.

Earlier this month, thousands of customers of auction website eBay received e-mails asking them to amend their registration details.

Both the e-mail, and the site it directed users to, was bogus.

Firms as well as users are vulnerable. Research group Gartner estimates US online retailers will lose $500m this Christmas season, a third in outright fraud and two-thirds in lost sales.

And only last month US authorities arrested three men accused of stealing the entire credit histories of over 30,000 people by using one man's position as a Ford financial services contractor to access the databases of credit rating agencies.

Meanwhile, on the eastern side of the Atlantic, the front page of the Daily Mail newspaper warned of traffickers in illegal immigrants using dead babies' birth certificates to obtain ID papers.

Getting a history

This last may be the most emotive.

A few hundred pounds on each of a thousand cards is a pretty good return

Peter Dorrington
SAS
But apparently it is also a largely irrelevant tip of a very large iceberg.

"This 'jackal' method is pretty unsophisticated," said Peter Dorrington, fraud specialist at UK software house SAS, referring to the technique's use in the 70s thriller The Day of the Jackal.

"Not that that means we're doing a good job catching it, but it leaves a huge gap to be filled if you wanted to use it for real fraud."

A birth certificate might get you a passport, but it won't get you a credit history.

And that's what the really dangerous crooks are after.

The online jungle

The problem is that with more and more anonymous deals done over the phone or the internet, ID fraud is much easier than it used to be.

"If it were me, I'd set up a fake website offering bargains on an item in vogue - say a popular toy around Christmas," Mr Dorrington says.

The site would ask for as many security details as possible, not least to reinforce the deception.

"Then I'd put up a page apologising for not being able to process the information at this time."

Not, of course, that there was ever any intention to take any money or send anything out.

"Then I'd wait a couple of months, to let people forget, and then start spending. A few hundred pounds on each of a thousand cards is a pretty good return."

Brave new world

Equifax's UK director of external affairs, Neil Munroe, acknowledges that it's hardly a challenging racket.

Over 1.2bn was lost to fraud in 2001, Equifax believes, a rise of 40% year on year.

"Companies and consumers are behaving on the basis of an old way of doing business," he told BBC News Online.

"They're suddenly waking up to the fact that they're in a very different world."

Debit card being swiped
Copy the magnetic stripe, and the card is yours
Add in the mass of junk mailings full of personal information bought from list brokers that the average Briton receives on an almost daily basis, and the opportunities are obvious.

No wonder simple bin diving - or alternatively retrieving credit card and loan offers from the doormats of recently vacated houses - are the number one ways of stealing someone's ID.

Changes

Equifax and its fellow credit agencies are taking steps to issue e-mail alerts to consumers when a firm queries their records, allowing them to know immediately if their identity is being abused.

The times to watch out, he says, are life-changing moments - getting married, splitting up with someone, moving house, changing jobs - anything that creates a window for ID theft to take place.

Additionally, the Ford case shows that the risk from third parties has never been clearer, he says.

"This is a wakeup call to make sure people check procedures," he told BBC News Online.

Software help

There are changes afoot.

Developments in the fight against money laundering could help encourage banks and other institutions to take the initiative.

In these post-9/11 days, banks are having to install software which should flag the change in behaviour for further notice.

And the systems could do the same for fraud, by flagging a formerly unassuming customer who suddenly discovers a taste for Ferraris and holidays in the Bahamas.

Precautions

But until such systems are up and running it remains very much down to the individual to protect him or herself.

In other words, the 2 you pay Experian or Equifax for your credit history is probably worth it, especially since you can now apply online.

To avoid the eBay issue, always check an em-mail's return address. If it's is different at all from the one you're used to typing into a browser, have nothing to do with it.

Likewise, if someone apparently phones from your bank asking for personal details, ask for a number and call back. If they refuse, hang up on them.

If you suspect you may be a victim, inform the Credit Industry Fraud Avoidance System to have your name flagged.

And you might like to start tearing up the junk mail, rather than simply binning it. Just in case.

See also:

11 Dec 02 | Business
26 Nov 02 | Business
04 Oct 02 | Entertainment
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