Identity theft happens when a criminal takes your personal information with the intention of committing identity fraud. “It’s collecting data for a nefarious reason,” James Jones, the head of consumer affairs at the credit reference agency Experian, says. “They then might use that information to fraudulently apply for loans, goods or services. It can also involve taking over or utilising an existing product, not necessarily opening a new one.”
Being targeted by fraudsters can be distressing, while sorting it out can be time-consuming, and the crime can have a direct impact on your personal finances – affecting your credit record and making it difficult to successfully apply for credit cards, loans or mortgages. So what can you do to try to protect your identity?
“The most important thing is safeguarding your personal information, whether it’s biographical or sign-on credentials – for online banking or Amazon, or anything like that. If someone gets access to one of your financial products, that can open up more opportunities for them,” Jones says. “Keep the lid tightly closed on personal information.”
There is so much about all of us online, says Amber Burridge, the head of intelligence at the fraud prevention body Cifas.
“Criminals will not just look at one source – they will look at links between the sources and social media accounts,” she says.
“On social media, it’s best to keep settings on the highest privacy level on all accounts, including LinkedIn, which we don’t always think of in the same terms as the likes of Facebook.”
Hang up on fraudsters
“If you get an unsolicited call or message purporting to be from a trusted organisation, hang up and call them on a number that you know to be theirs,” Burridge says. And if friends or family contact you asking for financial help, get in touch straight away – they may have been targeted by fraudsters.
One of the latest forms of fraud is where people are contacted on WhatsApp, or via text, by crooks claiming to be family, saying they have lost their mobile and access to online banking to pay bills.
If in doubt, don’t click
Don’t click on third-party links, whether they arrive via social media posts, text messages or emails, or anywhere else. The simple rule is, always look up the official website.
Be aware of fraud trends
“Fraudsters are very good at using trends to change their tactics, and at the moment the cost of living crisis is particularly hot,” Burridge says. “We have seen an increase in criminals posing as energy companies claiming they can offer a better deal, or as supermarkets offering money-off vouchers.”
Investment scams target those who need to supplement their income. Fraudsters pose as legitimate firms asking the victim to share their computer screen using remote access, so they can harvest personal and financial data.
They have also been posing as network providers asking for details of your existing contract, so they can offer you a better deal. Once they have these details, they can order devices in your name.
“When the government announced energy rebates through council tax, people started to see messages popping up saying: ‘Click here to set up your payment,’” says Jones. “If you’re not careful, you could give your bank account details to a crook.”.
“Password managers, like 1Password or LastPass, can be a great way of creating strong passwords and keeping track of them,” says Steve Goddard, the fraud and financial crime expert at Featurespace, a firm that provides tools to banks that aim to stop stolen IDs being used fraudulently.
For example, LastPass will generate and store passwords in an online “vault” that you can access through an authenticator on your phone. It has free and premium versions.
“If you’re searching for a particular store, make sure the URL is correct and that it has https at the start, or a little padlock – these mean it should be secure. If they are missing, you are potentially taking a risk,” Goddard says.
If you search for a store on Google, avoid clicking on the ads at the top of the page, he adds.
“It’s better to find the actual website because those ads are subscription-based, and someone could be waiting for the subscription to expire and take it over themselves,” he says.
Most – but not all – ID theft happens online. However, you still need to be careful when it comes to letters and other documents. “It’s still good practice to shred any document with your personal details on it,” Goddard advises.
“When you throw out a bill, for example, you’re sending it from a protected area – your house – to, say, landfill, and it’s got your full name, address, contact details and an account number.
“Somebody could take that, and pretend to be the company and say to a victim: ‘You’ve got an outstanding bill, here’s the sort code and account number to pay it into.’”
Update where you live
If you move house, remember to contact all the relevant companies and organisations – from your bank and credit card company to your doctor and dentist – to update them, and organise to have your mail redirected.
Make sure you notify the electoral roll, too, so that you are not registered at an old address.
Experian’s Jones says: “We include electoral register information in credit reports to help lenders check your name and address. So you don’t want to be registered somewhere that you don’t actually live because that could obviously help make a fraudulent application look a lot more legitimate.”
Heed the warning signs
According to the Information Commissioner’s Office, if you stop receiving statements from your bank for no reason, or you begin to receive letters or demands for debts that aren’t yours, or if you get receipts in your name for services or items you haven’t bought, these could all be a sign that someone has been using your identity.
If you are turned down for financial products such as credit cards or a loan, despite having a good rating, that could be a red flag.
“It’s a good idea to have an occasional look at your credit report data, which you can do for free with all the credit reference agencies,” Jones says.
“Experian gives everyone free access to their monthly credit score, and if you see a sudden nosedive, that can be a good warning sign.”
And always report it
Report any suspicious activity on your account – even if you are not certain it is the result of fraud – to your bank, to Action Fraud (the national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre) and Cifas.