Identity theft is on the increase and it is costing the South African economy billions every year.
Fred Steffers, MD of Consumer Profile Bureau, a source of credit information, says ID theft had become the white collar crime of choice because it is so easy.
"It is common knowledge that it is possible to procure a fraudulent ID book from the Department of Home Affairs thanks to widespread corruption. Armed with the identity number of someone with a good credit history, it is a simple matter to open numerous accounts in that person's name and to then go on a spending spree," he says.
Alexander Forbes Insurance have confirmed the fact that identity theft-related fraud is increasing and estimates the cost to South African business at R276-million in the first three months of 2008.
MD Gari Dombo says this was a "substantial increase" on the 2007 figures released by the SA Fraud Prevention Services.
"The average discovery time of identity theft is over 14 months and people whose identities have been stolen often spend many more months and thousands of rands reinstating their good name and credit record."
Steffers says identity fraud and theft is becoming increasingly sophisticated with hackers accessing personal details of their victims over the internet.
"Often fraud is detected only if a customer reviews his credit card statement or bank account details to find that accounts had either been emptied out or that a substantial portion of the assets had disappeared," Steffers says.
"And often the first hint of trouble is when someone who tries to obtain credit finds that he or she had been adversely listed with a credit bureau."
He says that, with cell phone banking on the rise and the growing sophistication of hackers to infiltrate secure systems, this was another risk that was growing rapidly.
Steffers explains that the identity theft fraud chain usually began with the theft of documents like a credit card, driver's licence, passport or ID book.
Criminals could use the information from these documents to register new credit or bank cards and run up debt in your name.
Growing numbers of South Africans are being adversely listed because their IDs are being used by fraud syndicates. The better the credit rating of individuals the greater the chances that they are going to become the targets of syndicates who use their identities to defraud business, both in South Africa and internationally."
He says South Africans generally do not protect their identity documents well enough and provide their ID numbers far too readily.
"There is a widespread lack of understanding of just how valuable this information is. An ID document should be protected just as carefully as a cheque book or a credit card.
"A fraudster can take out loans, apply for new passports or identity documents, rent an apartment or open a telephone account," Steffers adds. "They could even give your name to the police if they are arrested. If released on bail, any future arrest warrants would also be in your name."
He says often people only discovered quite late that they were victims of this fraud.
"If you have the slightest suspicion that a transaction reflected on your bank statement or on your credit card statement you might be a victim of fraud and should contact your bank immediately," Steffers warns.
"This is only the beginning of an often long and expensive process of reclaiming your identity, clearing your name and restoring you credit worthiness."
He adds that people could minimise the risk of this kind of theft by not carrying extra credit cards and by cancelling any accounts not used.