By Julian Knight
BBC News Personal Finance Reporter
People are leaving themselves wide open to identity theft by not taking proper precautions with their private correspondence, according to a leading criminologist.
Identity theft could lead to theft from your bank account
Professor Martin Gill, of the University of Leicester, interviewed identity thieves to find out how they perpetrated their scams.
What emerged from Professor Gill's study was that the widely held view that ID theft involved highly organised criminal gangs told only half the story.
Fraudsters are opportunistic, often acting on their own, the study found.
Typical methods used to obtain personal details included:
- Mail theft - thieves prey on flats where shared mail boxes made it easier for mail to be stolen
- Bribing delivery people - fraudsters would pay delivery people to hand over items containing identity information
- Rubbish bins - thieves would rummage through rubbish bags seeking discarded bills and bank statements
- Handbag theft - fraudsters target unattended bags as many people leave personal documents in them.
According to the study, once criminals got hold of personal documents it was relatively easy to apply for - and obtain - loans and credit cards.
The criminals also said that security checks carried out by retailers when presented with fraudulently obtained credit cards was "lax".
How to avoid ID theft
Do not use your mother's maiden name or place of birth as a security password
Check your credit record annually
If you move, make sure you let your bank know
Shred or rip-up post before throwing it in the bin
Never use the same password for all your accounts
Do not carry address details in your wallet
Some male fraudsters were even able to use cards bearing stolen female identities in shops.
Professor Gill called on firms to be more vigilant.
"Retailers, financial services and delivery companies need to make sure they're doing all they can to prevent identity fraud," he said.
However, Professor Gill added that it was essential for the public to take greater care over how they store and dispose of personal documentation.
"Simple actions like shredding personal documents, redirecting mail and keeping important papers under lock and key would help to abate this crime," he said.
The study coincides with the start of the first National Identity Fraud Prevention Week.
ID fraud is one of the UK's fastest-growing crimes.
ID thieves access accounts, run up bills, launder money, carry out benefit fraud and take out fraudulent loans
Earlier this year, a survey from Which? magazine found that a quarter of UK adults have had their identity stolen or know someone who has fallen victim to ID fraud.