Identity theft is a global crime costing economies millions each year – and, as digital transactions take off, it’s happening more often than ever.
In the US, about 15-million residents have their identities stolen each year, costing the country $50-billion, according to the US Identity Theft and Scam Prevention Service. This means that at least 7% of all adults suffer identity theft at a cost of about $3 500 in losses per individual.
However, many more are exposed when government records or corporate data bases are hacked or lost. Experts fear that identity theft could be the most pervasive crime in the US, the service reports.
In South Africa identity theft contributed to the loss of R1-billion from local companies in 2014 alone.
The SA Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS) found 3 600 cases of identity theft in 2014 with growing numbers recorded in 2015 and 2016.
Manie van Schalkwyk, executive director of SAFPS, says the scale of identity theft was rising as more and more transactions were done electronically.
Identity fraud has grown to include theft of cell and landline phone services; cable and satellite television services; power, water, gas and electricity; Internet and data services; medical insurance; home mortgages and rental housing car financing and other forms of financing and loans as well as government benefits.
The crime has increased by more than 200% in six years, Van Schalkwyk says.
But catching the thieves is incredibly difficult as they pass themselves off as legitimate consumers very convincingly. Criminals use an ID, often changing the photo and open bank accounts, purchase on credit and apply for loans.
A case involving a cellular network, illustrates just how devastating identity fraud can be: the network called the man telling him he owned R21 000 across five cell phone contracts all in his name. He submitted an affidavit to dispute this and reported it to the Pretoria North police station.
After months of phone calls to call centres and tracking down the right person to assist him, the company has admitted he owes them nothing.
He says: “Because of the company’s negligence in this matter I have suffered dearly. I was denied opportunities of employment as they check my credit report and they see the credit history, I am harassed by people pushing loans to help me settle my credit which I am not liable for. I can’t even apply for credit anywhere, I can’t even get a clothing account.”
Van Schalkwyk comments: “People usually find out that they have become a victim of identity crime when they hear from a credit provider or debt collector about an account or debt they know nothing about, as in that incident.”
Van Schalkwyk offers key advice: “Treat your ID book, driver’s licence and personal documents as you would treat cash. Do not leave them lying around the house or in the car.”
Shred documents before tossing them in the bin and clear mailboxes regularly, particularly if you live in a housing complex where there are multiple mail boxes in one area.
“Don’t ever click on web links received via SMS or e-mail unless you have initiated the transaction and you are comfortable that it has been sent from an authentic source.”
Consumers must also be on high alert when they receive an SMS or e-mail asking them to click on a link to update their personal information or account details – criminals use online methods commonly known as ‘phishing’ scams to gain access to bank account and personal details, he explains.
Consumers should be extra cautious about sharing their personal information, especially when applying for services online by always checking that the site is secure, as denoted by the ‘s’ (https) and select the appropriate privacy settings on social media sites.
He adds: “Consumers also regularly fall victim to several types of advance fee fraud and often divulge their personal details in the hope of winning a prize in a competition that they never entered, or entering into business or investment relationships which seem too good to be true.”
If you suspect that you have been impersonated, Van Schalkwyk says, you need to contact the organisation which will advise you about the steps to take to prove your innocence and clear your name.
If you are aware of having misplaced your ID book, credit card or other means of identification you can contact SAFPS which will assist you in applying for a protective registration on the SAFPS database.
Van Schalkwyk says: “The benefit of protective registration is that all member organisations, including banks, clothing and furniture retailers and some insurance companies, have access to the SAFPS data base and any identity theft or fraud will be flagged and can be prevented. This is a free service and consumers are encouraged to use it.”