Imagine you get a call - out of the blue - from an irate store manager in Kimberly saying that your account is R12, 000 in arrears, and that if you don't start paying soon, the store will hand the case over to its lawyers for legal action. The thing is, you've never even heard of this shop. You haven't even been to Kimberly in your life. It has to be a mistake. But he insists it's not. The account is in your name, with your ID number - and he insists that you're liable to pay the debt.
You've been the victim of identity theft.
What is identity theft?
Identity (ID) theft is one of the fastest growing crimes worldwide - with millions of people having fallen victim to it, and financial costs of the crime running into billions of dollars. ID theft occurs when criminals steal your personal information and use it for their own benefit - without your knowledge or permission. By using your information, the thief poses as you and can empty your bank accounts, get new credit cards, obtain loans, open up new accounts, or run up high charges on your existing accounts - all in your name. In some cases, thieves even use your information to attain new ID documents - which they use to conceal their own identities.
How it happens
For identity theft to occur, the thief needs to have private information about you - such as your ID number, banking or credit card details, postal address, phone numbers, email address, and signature. Identity thieves use numerous methods to get this information, such as:
- Using personal information they get through social media - either by building a relationship with you online, or simply checking the details of your profile.
- Hacking into your computer or email account to find sensitive personal information.
- Stealing your wallet or purse containing your ID documents and bank cards.
- Stealing your postal mail - such as credit card statements and tax notices.
- Going through your garbage to find sensitive paperwork you've thrown away (also called "dumpster diving").
- Filling out a "change of address form" to divert your sensitive mail to another location.
- Using an act of social engineering, such as impersonating your employer, landlord, or professor, to ask for your information.
- Illegally purchasing your personal information from retailers or databases that legitimately store your information.
The thieves then use your information for fraudulent activities - most commonly financial transactions such as purchasing items on your credit cards or opening accounts in your name.
ID theft usually occurs without the victim knowing and often it's only a year later when victims realise what's happened - when credit applications are denied, debt collectors demand payment for unpaid bills, or a court summons arrives. In some cases, people have even been imprisoned for crimes committed using their identities.
Aside from the financial losses incurred and the damage to a victim's reputation and credit history, ID theft can also be emotionally draining and time-consuming - with the sheer effort needed to recover from the fraudulent activities of the thief.
To make things worse, many victims of ID theft report that the person who stole their identity is actually someone they know - such as a neighbour, roommate, or co-worker.
Because we live in an information-driven age, it's impossible to completely eliminate the risk of ID theft. However, there are guidelines you can follow to severely reduce the chances of becoming a victim:
- Always keep your sensitive documents (e.g. ID document, passport, driver's licence) safe.
- When any of these documents, or your credit or debit cards, expire or are replaced, immediately destroy and dispose of the old version.
- When disposing of sensitive paperwork (e.g. bank statements, salary slips) always shred / destroy the papers before throwing them away or recycling.
- If you receive a credit card or any other banking card, ensure that you either sign it immediately or destroy it if you won't be using it (in the case of pre-approved, unsolicited cards).
- Ensure that your bank sends you SMS alerts when transactions occur in your bank account.
- When a bill doesn't arrive on time, contact the service provider to check if they've sent it to you.
- Check your credit rating at least once a year to see if you've unknowingly been blacklisted or are at risk. South Africans can get a free credit report once a year from bureaus such as TransUnion.
- Don't give out your personal information - such as ID number and home address - to people or companies you don't know, even if they're offering you special deals or claiming you've won a prize.
Help! My identity's been stolen!
If you're the victim of identity theft, the very first thing you need to do is report the case of fraud to the police and obtain a case number - as soon as possible. This will assist you when dealing with banks and retailers that the thief has used under your name and will also help you navigate your way through the legal system.
It's also important to report the fraud to the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS). If your ID book and other sensitive documents have been lost or stolen, register them with the SAFPS via phone (011 867 2234) OR email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In cases of financial fraud, you can also contact the Credit Ombudsman to resolve disputes with credit providers or agents.
In all cases, keep printed copies of all documentation related to your case.