Simple steps to make it harder for identity thieves

Identity fraud and theft can cause financial and emotional pain and the effects can last for years. It affects individuals and businesses alike. Although most people know about it, research shows that people and businesses are not aware of or are not taking the steps they could to fully protect themselves.

What is identity fraud?

The BBC’s Watchdog programme defines identity fraud as “criminals using your personal information for monetary gain”. It can also “extend to opening bank accounts in your name, redirecting your post to another address or even securing a passport using your personal details.”

Why is it so prevalent?

Unfortunately, identity theft becomes easier every day. If you can use a computer, have internet access, a printer and a scanner, you can take over someone else’s identity.

In addition, lots of us are still not taking simple steps to make it harder for identity thieves to operate. Here are some suggestions for you:

Shred documents: Bank statements, utility bills, application forms, chequebook stubs, card receipts and letters can all display your personal information. Buy a cheap shredder (a cross-shredder is best) and you can even use the shreddings as mulch for the garden.

Keep your personal documents in a safe place, preferably in a lockable drawer or cabinet. Consider storing valuable financial documents such as share certificates with your bank.

Be alert on the phone: If you receive a call from someone requesting personal information take their name and number and ask to call them back. If you’re concerned about the source of a call, wait five minutes and call from a different telephone making sure there is a dialling tone first (some callers stay on the line). If you receive an unsolicited email or phone call from what appears to be your bank or building society asking for your security details, never reveal your full password, login details or account numbers. A legitimate bank should never ask for your PIN or a whole security number or password.

Be alert online: Phishing scams – where fraudsters disguise themselves as working for a legitimate company and email you asking for sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details – are a growing problem. Best practice is to treat your email address a bit like your home address and keep it as private as possible. You can also forward suspicious emails to the main companies usually targeted which monitor the different scams going on in their name e.g. phishing@<companyname>.co.uk. Avoid clicking on any links or opening any attachments on these emails and delete them from your inbox.

Setting ‘strong’ passwords is important to keep your online activity safe. They need to be difficult to guess (avoid using your child’s name or your date of birth) and include a mixture of upper and lower case characters, numbers and punctuation marks. A strong password should be at least 10 characters long and, as hard as they are to remember, avoid using the same one for different accounts.

Take care with social media and restrict the amount of personal information you give away on such sites. Your real friends should already know where you live, your birthday and if you are going on holiday.

Regularly update your computer’s firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware programmes. Up to 80% of cyber threats can be removed just by doing this.

Monitor your credit report and bank statements: This means you’ll know about any unauthorised or suspicious activity as quickly as possible. Credit reports are good to check if you have just moved house. If you’re expecting a bank or credit card statement, and it doesn’t arrive, tell your bank or credit card company. If you receive a new card in the post, be wary of envelopes that have been opened. Fraudsters have also been known to take a pencil or crayon rubbing of the new card while it is still in the envelope!

Cancel any bank or credit cards immediately if they are lost or stolen. Keep a note of the emergency numbers you should call. When giving your card details or personal information over the phone, online or in a shop, make sure other people cannot hear or see your personal information. The same goes when withdrawing cash at an ATM. Be aware of who is standing behind you and avoid using any machines that appear to have been tampered with.

If you are moving house, change your address on official records and put a redirection on your post for at least six months, to avoid any sensitive mail falling into the wrong hands.

Some home insurance policies cover the cost of action post identity thefts, so keep that in mind next time when you discuss your home insurance with your local branch.

Hopefully, this has given you some practical steps you can take to protect your identity.