What is identity theft?
Cyber-crimes can wreak havoc on victims by causing major disruptions and inconvenience to their lives.
As our lives spill over into the digital world through online social networking and email, the amount of personal information that is being stored on the internet is constantly increasing. All the data, images, and videos documenting different facets of our lives, whether personal or work-related, eventually end up stored on online servers, especially now with the increase in popularity of cloud-based storage.
Online identity theft
The ease with which we can access information about one another online has made the internet a very attractive place for identity thieves.
Identity theft is one of the internet’s fastest-growing methods used to carry out criminal activities. An identity thief will attempt to collect as much information as possible about you and use it to impersonate you as they commit a crime.
Identity thieves trawl the internet to collect the information they need about their victims. They find this data either from social networking sites that let everyone look through your profile, or by gaining unauthorised access into your computer or online accounts.
How do they do it?
There are many ways how identity theft can be committed and it usually involves getting personal information both online sources and from physical documents. Some of the tactics identity thieves use to get their hands on your personal information include:
- Tricking you into sharing personal data in response to emails, text messages, letters or phone calls.
- Identity thieves can pose as people from your bank or from an online shopping services you use to convince you into sharing bank account numbers or sensitive passwords. This method of getting data by masquerading as a trustworthy individual is commonly known as phishing.
- Identity theft can also happen in the real world if crooks steal or gain access to paper documents such as bank statements, utility bills, tax returns and your passport/driving licence.
- Identity thieves who come in contact with you in person may exploit your trust by taking you into their confidence and then mislead you into sharing private information with them.
- Shoulder surfing – people looking over your shoulder at your computer or smartphone/tablet while inputting usernames and passwords, or at the ATM when you’re entering your PIN number. Make sure you logout from your accounts after using public computers.
- To protect yourself from potential surveillance when using free public Wi-Fi, download a virtual-private-network (VPN) service like Hotspot Shield that will encrypt the data from your browsing activity.
A Belgian bank released an advert in June 2013 that shows how easily an unknown person can steal our identity just by using information publicly available on social networks and placing a few phone calls. Although this was just a prank, the video really makes it clear how easy it is to steal someone else’s life and the serious consequences that can follow.
How do you recognise that your identity has been stolen?
There are many signs to watch out for that may mean that you’ve been a victim of identity theft.
- The most obvious sign of identity theft is noticing that there are entries in your bank statements for things you didn’t buy or pay for. Banks track where money is being sent and they often notify their customers when a payment has been made to a foreign country that the customer has never been to.
- Another sign is that you receive calls or correspondence about the non-delivery or non-payment of goods that you were not aware of.
- You start receiving credit cards or material by mail that you didn’t apply or request for.
- You suddenly find out you cannot log into a website using your normal password. Criminals can log into your accounts and change the password.
- A definite red flag for identity theft is that you have recently lost or had stolen important documents such as your passport or driving licence.
How can you prevent identity theft?
Here are some simple steps you can take to minimise the risk of identity theft online and in the real world.
- Choose strong passwords online and pick a different one for each account you own. Regularly changing your passwords is a good way to protect your data and makes it harder for hackers to get into your account.
- Always keep data such as usernames and passwords in a safe place. Avoid sharing account information with other people.
- Never divulge private information data in response to emails unless you are certain that the request comes from a trusted source.
- Save sensitive documents securely in an encrypted format and ensure that you enable https browsing when online. Many websites now allow users to set up an even safer two-step verification before logging in.
- Ensure that your antivirus/antispyware software is updated and that you have the latest version running.
- Check the privacy settings on the social networking sites you use and make sure that you know who can view the images or any other information you post online.
- Always beware of people standing behind you as are entering private information on a computer, smartphone/tablet or ATM. You can protect yourself by simply covering the device with one hand whilst typing in your PIN number or password with the other.
What to do in case of identity theft
If you believe you have been the victim of the identity theft then you need to act promptly so as to minimise the impact of the theft.
- Make sure you contact any affected websites and report the problem to their technical support so that they can disable your account and prevent anyone else from using it.
- Log in to any other accounts you use and that have not been compromised and change your password immediately using a strong password. If a website requires a secret question for access, change it and use a stronger answer to avoid repeat incidents.
- Regularly check bank statements to find out if any irregular transactions were made. If you notice any strange payments, make sure to contact the bank immediately for advice. Most banks and credit card companies will refund you the full amount if they establish that you were the victim of an identity theft.
- Check online shopping websites you use for unauthorised transactions, items for sale or items purchased in your name that you weren’t aware of, and cancel them.
- Report lost or stolen documents such as passports, driving licences and credit cards as soon as possible to the relevant issuing authorities. In the case of credit cards, make sure the bank freezes the card and that the compromised PIN number cannot be used anymore.