What is Identity Theft
Identity Theft and Identity Fraud are terms used to describe the impersonation of another person, typically for the purpose of financial gain. Personal information is obtained or stolen from the victim, and used to impersonate that person. Such information can include a victim's Social Insurance Number, credit card number, bank account, and other records. It may also include such personal data as a person's name, address, telephone number, mother's maiden name, and so forth. Once the criminal has this data, he or she may be able to make unauthorized withdrawals from bank accounts, obtain credit in the other person's name, and may even take over the person's identity altogether. The offence may occur in other provinces, states or countries, so it can be very difficult tracking and catching such criminals.
Even if a criminal only obtains personal data about you, he or she can then forge identification from this information. For example, by obtaining your name, address, birth date, and a few other facts, they could forge a driver's license or birth certificate. With the forged I.D., they can then apply for other forms of legitimate identification, such as an O.H.I.P. card or Social Insurance Number card. By expanding the amount of I.D. with your name on it, they take over your identity and can then apply for loans, credit cards, and other accounts or items that are profitable for them.
Identity Theft is often a means to performing other crimes. Once a criminal has enough information about you, he or she can make false loan applications, fraudulently apply for credit cards, steal money from your account, or misrepresent himself to others using your name and credentials. If the criminal has the falsely obtained credit cards, bank statements, or other documentation sent to an address that doesn't belong to the victim, then the victim may be unaware that anything is wrong. Without knowing, a criminal could be driving them into debt, stealing their assets, and damaging their reputation and credit rating.
How Does Identity Theft Occur?
Information used in Identity Theft can be obtained through a variety of methods. While you might think a criminal would acquire the data through illegal methods, such as breaking into your house or stealing your wallet, this often isn't the case. Many times, the information is obtained through seemingly innocuous actions or sources.
One method of obtaining personal data is through sources of public information sources like phone books, announcements in the newspaper, or the Internet. By viewing a listing in the phone book, a criminal can find such facts as your name, address, and phone number. Newspaper announcements may provide your age, birth date, anniversary, maiden name, or even the names of relatives. Some Internet chat programs ask you to provide information about yourself, and include fields for your name, gender, age, occupation, and other data that a criminal will find useful when he or she views it online. Other programs or websites may ask for even more personal data, such as your mother's maiden name, Social Insurance Number, or other useful information. Some Internet browsers even enable you to enter your credit card information, to make it easier making online purchases. By obtaining this information, a criminal has the necessary elements to steal your identity.
Another common method of obtaining personal and financial data is through your garbage. This is called "Dumpster Diving." A criminal will search through a person's garbage, looking for bank and credit card statements, copies of cheques, or other records that have been discarded. This gives the criminal the ability to access your financial accounts, or apply for credit in your name.
Pre-approved credit applications are a common method of Identity Theft. If these are discarded but not shredded, a criminal can apply for credit in your name. The criminal may check your mailbox after applying for the card, and steal the card when it finally arrives at your home. In other cases, they may have it redirected to another address.
The best way to avoid becoming a victim of Identity Theft is to take steps to protect yourself. Use these tips:
- Obtain a credit report on yourself. Credit bureaus can provide you with a credit report that will show your current credit rating and information. Many victims don't realize their identity has been stolen until after a debt has been put in the credit bureau or legal action is taken against them. You should contact the credit bureau at least once a year, and find what information they have dealing with you. This will alert you of any frauds committed under your name.
- Avoid publishing personal data about yourself. If making an announcement in the paper, keep the details about yourself to a minimum. If your phone number is published in the phone book, request that your address isn't included. There is no need to give more information than necessary.
- Invest in a shredding machine, which will shred paper into tiny strips. Shredding documents will prevent criminals from being able to view any personal data or financial information. Any offers (such as pre-approved credit card applications, memberships (to record/video/dvd clubs), etc.) should also be shredded. A criminal could apply in the guise of you, and order merchandise in your name.
- Keep all credit card receipts, and compare them to your monthly credit statement. This will enable you to see if unauthorized purchases have been made. Once you've compared them, keep or shred the receipts and your monthly credit card bill. Since the credit card number appears on the statement and receipts, someone who obtains one of these from your trash can potentially make purchases using your card number.
- Report lost or stolen I.D., cheques, bank cards and credit cards immediately. The card company can cancel the credit card number, preventing a criminal from using your card. Banks can also void the use of your bank card, and prevent missing cheques from being honoured. If other forms of identification (such as Social Insurance Number cards, O.H.I.P. cards, or drivers license) is stolen or lost, these too need to be reported to prevent them from being used by someone other than you.
- Keep the carbon sheet from the charge slip. Criminals who obtain the carbon sheet will be able to read your credit card numbers. Ensure the carbon sheet is shredded, so that a criminal can't get the sheet and read the number after it has been disposed in the garbage.
- Avoid giving personal and financial information to telemarketers. Don't give telemarketers your credit card numbers or personal data, unless you're sure they represent a reputable company and/or unless you called to them. A criminal may contact you claiming to represent an organization so they can get this information.
- Make sure you know who you're dealing with! Anyone can call and say they're with the government, bank or a reputable company. If they can't provide a number to call them back, or prove they're actually with a company, hang up the phone. The same applies to documentation in the mail. In the computer age, it isn't difficult to put a company's logo on a piece of paper, and claim to be affiliated with a legitimate company.
- Don't give information about yourself on the Internet. When using chat programs and other Internet applications, don't include anything more than the minimal amount of data needed to use the program. For example, it isn't necessary to include your address, phone number, occupation or other details to use a chat or messaging program.
- Avoid giving credit card numbers to e-commerce sites. Don't give e-commerce sites your credit card numbers, unless you're sure they represent a reputable company. You also shouldn't send credit card information to sites that aren't secure, as hackers may obtain the credit card numbers transferred over the Internet.
- Be careful of SPAM (unsolicited mail) and other unsolicited contact. In recent years, it has become common for criminals to email a large group of people, promising some benefit (such as a prize or free trip). The victim is required to provide some personal or credit card information for verification, but the criminal only wants to obtain the data and has no intention of keeping the promise. This same trick is performed by telemarketers and through the mail.
- If you're going to be traveling, have your mail held at the post office or have a friend, neighbour or family member collect it. If the mail isn't in a place where a criminal can reach it, then they won't be able to use it against you.
- What to Do If You're a Victim
If you're a victim of Identity Theft, you need to take action to protect yourself and catch the person. The following steps should be taken as soon as possible:
Contact your local police department immediately. Without taking action to stop the person, the fraud may (and probably will) continue.
Contact financial institutions, credit card companies, and other places where false applications have been made, and get copies of these applications.
Notify your bank, credit card companies, and other institutions where you have accounts and inform them of the problem.