By Julian Knight
Personal finance reporter, BBC News
A telephone and internet help service should be set up to aid those who have their identities stolen, the National Consumer Council (NCC) has said.
Identity thieves get away with an estimated £1.7bn a year
The help service would be somewhere consumers can report identity theft and have the problem sorted out with all relevant companies.
At present, victims often have huge problems proving who they are and getting their credit records amended.
The Home Office estimates identity fraudsters steal £1.7bn each year.
The NCC surveyed banks, mobile phone companies, credit agencies and police forces to give a snapshot of how people who have had their identities are treated.
Lord Whitty, NCC Chair, said the approaches ranged from the "sympathetic to the absolutely appalling".
"We were shocked by the low priority companies give to identity theft victim support, and by the lack of recognition for theft victims in the UK law," he said.
People who have their identities stolen are often caught in a "Catch-22" situation - needing to get a crime reference number from the police to clear their names with creditors, but being denied it because under UK law they are not considered the victim of a crime.
In UK law it is the company which loses cash that is deemed to be the victim of a crime, rather than the person who has had their identity stolen or their relatives.
This can lead to huge difficulties for consumers, who are left to clear their credit records on their own.
At present, it can take months - even years, on some occasions - for many victims to correct their credit records and get their finances back into shape.
It is this situation which has prompted the NCC's call for a one-stop help service for victims of identity theft.
Companies in the financial and mobile phone sectors would be expected to foot the bill for the help service.
Firms would benefit, the NCC argues, because it would help alert them more quickly to cases of identity theft, as well as boosting their reputation with consumers.
The consumer body said it had only recently started to talk to businesses about funding the help service.
But Lord Whitty admitted that at present there was "not as much interest as there ought to be" amongst firms for helping victims.
The NCC highlighted the growing trend of fraudsters stealing the identities of the dead to obtain credit and goods.
An estimated 70,000 deceased people have had their identities stolen, the NCC added.
Elizabeth's experience is typical of those who have had to suffer the pain of finding a deceased loved ones identity has been stolen.
"It was three or four months after my mother had died of cancer that her postman alerted me that mail was arriving at her old address," she said."
"I had the mail re-directed and discovered that credit cards and catalogue debt had been taken out in her name. I alerted the firms that a fraud was going on but they were suspicious of me, I had to prove who I was."
Elizabeth, a 45-year-old administrator from the New Forest, then tried to report the "crime" to her local police.
"I was told that I could not report the theft as a crime because I was not the victim. I should go home and forget about it, the police said."
Elizabeth estimates that the thieves got away with £3,000-£4,000 through using her mother's identity.
"My mother would be furious if she had known that her good name had been used to obtain credit," she said.
"Banks seem so desperate to lend money they do not even make basic checks. On one credit agreement the fraudster gave my mother's birthday as 1957... she was 75 when she died."