Consumer identity theft can affect anyone, regardless of age, occupation or social demographic. Unfortunately, most people have (or at least know someone who has) encountered some such fraud or fraud attempt, where their personal details have been used without their knowledge. There have also been a number of high profile celebrities who have fallen victim to the multitude of scams that exist these days – so no one is exempt!
The effects of consumer identity theft can be costly and long lasting, whether to your bank balance or your peace of mind. However, the good news is that you can help protect yourself using a handful of quick, easy safeguards.
So how are fraudsters carrying out this kind of identity theft, and what should you look out for?
Dumpster diving and mail theft
Two of the oldest and most widely known methods of identity theft are dumpster diving and mail theft. Thieves look through your bins to steal documents which you’ve thrown away, or they take unopened mail from your letter box. Fraudsters could take anything from your address and phone number, which may be used to try and gain further information from you, to full bank account details which can be used to try and access your savings. Stolen information can also be used to obtain credit in your name.
Fraudsters may use ATM skimming to steal your card details when you withdraw money from a cash machine. In what sounds like a scene from Mission Impossible, a panel is fitted over the card slot which takes the information from the magnetic strip on your card – and a miniature camera records your PIN number when you enter it. Sometimes the number pad itself is even fitted with a device which captures your PIN, as highlighted in a recent BBC article. Other examples of ATM fraud include devices which hold onto your card so you can’t retrieve it from the cash point.
If you’re reading this then you’re probably on the internet! Sadly, although the internet has made communication and access to entertainment far easier, it has also opened several doors for fraudsters. It’s possible to pick up viruses and spyware on your PC (or internet enabled device) that can do anything from tracking your keystrokes to accessing your webcam, as well as stealing important files off of your computer. Hackers and fraudsters also send genuine-looking ‘phishing’ emails while posing as banks or popular services such as eBay, iTunes or PayPal, in the hope that you will visit their fake website and enter your personal information.
What you can do
As scary as these scams may sound, remember that basic security precautions will really help to reduce the risk of consumer ID theft. So rather than worry about identity theft, consider taking the following preventative action:
One of the quickest and easiest precautions is to shred any important documents, rather than just throw them away. Manual and electric shredders will turn your bank statements, sensitive documents, old credit cards and any CDs or DVDs into thin strips or confetti-cut pieces. There are different levels of security available, but even the most basic will help to deter fraudsters.
Guard your mail
Be aware of anyone suspicious hanging around you property – and if you are away for any length of time consider asking a trusted neighbour to make sure that your mail is pushed fully through your letterbox.
When using an ATM
Be wary of any cash machines that look like they’ve been tampered with and only use ATM’s in well lit, populated and ideally CCTV-covered areas. Shield your PIN as you type it in as well, even if there is no one around – and immediately contact your bank if your card gets held back by the ATM.
When using the internet, a basic antivirus package will help protect you from a lot of the major security threats. There are plenty of free and paid products on the market, usually including a firewall and active browsing protection. Some will even include a phishing email detector to complement the filters put in place by most email service providers. Even if a phishing email does slip through the net, remember that banks and other organisations will never ask for sensitive information through email. You should also pay careful attention to the address or URL bar when clicking on links within emails, to ensure that the site they send you through to is genuine and not a subtle (or even not so subtle!) copy. With some browsers, simply hovering over the link will show you the website address it will take you through to so you can check to make sure it’s legitimate before clicking (this website address information typically shows up in the bottom left of your browser window).
General fraud prevention advice
There are a number of other things you can do to help prevent or limit the extent of consumer ID fraud too. These include regularly checking bank statements for any unusual activity – and making sure you report anything suspicious or any attempted fraud as soon as possible. Also, if anyone asks you to reveal confidential information over the phone, make sure you are satisfied that they are legitimate first. Don’t feel pressured into revealing your information as if they are genuine they should appreciate your concern. If necessary, ask if you can call them back.
Modern life, and particularly the developments in technology over the past decade or so, has meant that we sometimes face quite advanced fraud scams. However, just by following these quick and easy precautions, you can help protect yourself and hopefully avoid falling victim to consumer identity theft.