Once you have had your identity stolen it can be difficult to get it back
By Tamsyn Kent
BBC News Magazine
Identity fraud is on the up - more than a third in the first nine months of this year compared with 2008. But for some the trauma of finding their bank account has been emptied is matched by the realisation they must rebuild their identity from scratch.
Already this year more than 59,000 people have had their personal details stolen by criminals.
They are being used fraudulently to order items such as credit cards and mobile phone Sim cards.
Those who have never had their identity stolen might think that everything possible would be done to protect the victim and rectify the situation. But the case of Simon Wales shows identity theft can be a bewildering experience - not only because someone plundered his personal details, but also because he was left to reconstruct his ID.
Last November, Mr Wales' cheque book and bank card were stolen. It took a matter of days for his bank account to be completely emptied.
"I was on holiday in Morocco when I realised I had no money in my account. It had been spent in hotels across the UK and on train travel. It was horrible, someone had stolen my identity and had been running up debts in my name."
Many victims report feeling fear and anger when it happens. For a long time afterwards, some feel intense suspicion which can turn into paranoia.
For Mr Wales it was devastating. He lost thousands of pounds. But that was not the worst of it. The thief who cleaned out his account effectively robbed him of the one thing that is unique to him - his identity.
"It wasn't the financial bit, I felt invaded, like I'd been burgled. Even now, I'm afraid it's going to happen again."
He is not alone in feeling bereft in the face of ID theft.
"Their private world has been invaded and people feel a deep sense of threat," says psychologist Dr Arthur Cassidy.
"They can lose their self esteem and they feel fear which can turn into social phobias. Most cyber criminals are incredibly sophisticated and they leave permanent psychological damage on their victims. And it can take a long time to recover."
RECLAIMING YOUR IDENTITY
Don't panic - but act quickly. Alert any organisations involved - they will tell you whether to contact the police
Think reputation - also alert one of the three credit reference agencies (see links, above right)
Be prepared - have identification ready to prove who you really are
Persevere it might take time for the companies involved to carry out their own investigation
Be thorough - have documents to hand to prove you weren't in the place at the time the money was spent
Tell your bank - it will be able to monitor your account more closely for you.
Be patient - it might not be sorted out overnight
The problem is compounded by the fact that one's financial identity is so important these days, it is inevitably bound up in one's personality. For Mr Wales it meant he was immediately considered a criminal suspect.
"It was a struggle convincing people it wasn't me that had spent the cash. The banks and loan companies wanted me to send my passport, evidence I was who I said I was. The fraudster used my ID and I ended up getting a bad name for something that wasn't to do with me. He'd stolen my name with his face. I just didn't know what to do."
What can be difficult for victims to come to terms with is that they often become the focus of any investigation to start with. The organisations involved will check and verify that the "victim" is not in fact the fraudster.
"It's not that they don't believe you - but equally they don't want people going on a spending spree and then saying it wasn't me because that too is fraud," says Richard Hurley, of the UK's fraud prevention service Cifas, the Credit Industry Fraud Avoidance System.
Its job is to help credit reference agencies and other financial organisations piece back together a victim's lost identity.
The process involves ID verification using a passport, driver's licence with photo-card and a utility bill. Victims may also be asked for documentation to prove they were not in the place when their money was spent, at the time it was spent.
"Trying to convince the loan companies it wasn't me was a nightmare," says Mr Wales.
"It's an intrusion of your own being and a feeling that you've been invaded. I felt vulnerable and open to exploitation because someone was pretending to be me. My name was blackened."
Below is a selection of your comments.
Luckily the bank picked up the fact that credit cards had been applied for in my name and were suspicious. They acted quickly and stopped the cards being issued, but I then had a real problem sorting out the resulting mess. The fraudster had got hold of a lot of personal information and registered me on another electoral role. I ended up having to change bank accounts and all of my standing orders. The worst part was trying to convince the local authority where I was fraudulently registered to remove my name. I had to use Data Protection Legislation to sort it out, it took over a year. I now use a credit reference agency to regularly review my details.
Andrew, Milton Keynes
I have had my ID stolen twice in the last year. The police do nothing about this. I have been to them both times and they explain that as it is very hard to prove, they don't tend to follow up. This only adds to the frustration and anger that you feel. My bank has been quite good about the whole episode, although I've had to take in paperwork showing I was out of the country when the food deliveries and 12 airline flights were booked using my details. Both times I have felt threatened as I am unaware of how these details have been stolen, if the people are watching me, or if they know where I live. But explaining this to the police, they shrug and say there is nothing they can do. Shred everything, it really is a nightmare!
James K, London
The same happened to me last year. The first I knew was that one of my credit cards was cloned and being used in the US. Luckily the credit card company rang me. After that it just snowballed. Bank loans, store cards bank accounts, all opened in my name. They even tried to redirect my mail. Police are not interested and I spend every week checking my credit file. As for CIFAS, what a joke. They allegedly password-protected my credit record and the first time they asked me, they gave the question and the answer. Also CIFAS expires every 12 months, something they fail to tell you. If it happens to you, you're on your own and feel isolated and completely violated.
The case study in your story is not identity theft - it's just theft. Identity theft is when someone uses your identity to apply for cards/loans etc, not when they steal your card. It's much harder to prevent than just straight theft because you have to trust any system that holds info about you, not just be careful what you do with your cards. However when I recently activated a credit card the bank tried to flog me identity theft insurance and got very nasty when I wouldn't take it up. They were unable to tell me what the benefits of the insurance were and they insisted (wrongly) that I am liable for any debt that is run up by someone using my identity. They too conflated identity theft with having your card stolen.
I nearly had my credit card cleared. I check my cards on a daily basis, and initially found £45 missing. I contacted my credit card company, who were most helpful. They stopped my account and immediately reissued me a new card and and account. However the supplier billing the goods was not helpful, and threatened legal action for payment. They would not tell me the e-mail address the purchase confirmation was sent to, or help me out in any of my investigations. Every purchase I made for a year or so afterwards was being questioned or queried. And my credit rating, up to then impeccable, took a downturn.
Martin Blanchard, Hull
Yet another thing that needs photo ID. Without a passport (I don't travel abroad) or a driving license (I don't drive) I'm finding it increasingly difficult to prove who I am. I'd almost support ID cards except I don't think I could prove who I am to them either.
No ID, Birmingham UK
I feel for Mr Wales. Although I get a little bit of friendly abuse for doing so, this is why I shred all sensitive documents, and even the parts of junk mail with my name and address on it. At the end of the day, it's your data so you should take reasonable precautions to protect it as best you can.
As someone with some experience in verifying the identity of a person I am doing business with, all I can say is ID theft is almost totally due to our own making. We do not check that people are who they say they are. We ask for utility bills (easy to fake), mother's maiden name (public knowledge), address details (if not public knowledge, at least very easy to find out) etc. We almost never ask for a proper ID, like a passport, which is difficult to forge, even without the biometrics. So demanding to see a passport, checking its validity and comparing the photo to the person would cut ID theft by a huge amount.
I haven't had my "identity" stolen but have had money fraudulently taken from my account, luckily it was only 160 euros. The thing is it took nearly six weeks for me to get not only refunded, but to access my bank account again. I had to borrow money off friends and family to pay rent etc. The bank was very blunt about me having to prove I wasn't the person who had taken the money out. The burden of proof is placed unfairly on the victim. I'm just glad I spotted it before it became a bigger problem.
Colin Walker, Cardiff, Wales