Author Mark Richards

Identity theft is growing rapidly – and young people are increasingly vulnerable. What can we do to protect ourselves?

If you have reached a certain age, you will have received the e-mail…

Greetings! I am a colonel in the West African army. I have been given money to buy arms but the person who transferred the money to me was killed in an air-raid. No-one else knows about the money. There is $5 million in my account and I need to transfer it out of the country. A good friend has given me your name as a person I can trust. I am willing to split the money 50/50 with you if you can help me. You can e-mail me at…

…And so the bait was cast into the water and occasionally a fish would bite.

Sometimes it wasn’t a colonel in the army. It might be a Middle Eastern prince or a Far Eastern diplomat – but the pitch was always the same: I will split the money if you will help me. And sooner or later, ‘helping’ meant sending some money to West Africa or the Middle East. I just need £2,000 to pay bribes and guarantee security…

That scam was one of the first internet frauds, proving the old saying – first quoted in the 16th Century – that ‘a fool and his money are soon parted.’

But today it is not e-mails from far-flung places that we need to worry about. Identity fraud is growing rapidly – and the danger can be as close as your letterbox. More and more people are having their identities stolen: it is no longer just fools who are being parted from their money.

What is identity fraud?

Put simply, identity fraud is when a fraudster pretends to be an individual in order to buy a product or take out a loan in their name.

The statistics – gathered by the Credit Industry Fraud Awareness System (Cifas) and from 277 banks and businesses – show almost 173,000 recorded frauds in 2016, the highest number since records began. And the real figures are likely to be far higher: many businesses will not report frauds for fear of damaging to their reputation or for reasons of commercial confidentiality. Many individuals will not report frauds either because they are unaware of them, or because they are ashamed of being caught, or embarrassed at the nature of the fraud.  

The incidents of identity fraud represent 53% of all fraud recorded by Cifas – with 88% of that fraud occurring online. The numbers are startling: in 2008 there were 77,642 cases of ID fraud: they increased every year through to 2012, then fell in 2013 and 2014. Suddenly, though, there has been a rapid increase as fraudsters become ever-more sophisticated.

In particular, young people are a growing target for identity theft cases, which reached record numbers in 2016. Almost 25,000 victims of fraud were under 30, with the number of under-21s increasing by almost a third.

The trauma of identity theft

Understandably people who have been the victim of identity fraud are angry and frightened. “You wonder what else they might have done with your personal details,” said one victim. “And every time there is a knock on the door you wonder if it the bailiffs calling to collect a debt that you know nothing about.”

How do fraudsters steal your details?

We all know the information that banks and credit card companies ask for – date of birth, mother’s maiden name, the first school you went to – and fraudsters can obtain this information in one of several ways. They can steal your mail, hack into your computer, buy your details on the dark web and – in far too many cases – make use of the personal information you have made available on social media.

This can often be caused by something as simple as the positioning of a letterbox – for example, all the letterboxes being together in a communal hall – making it easy for a thief to gather a lot of information on a lot of people very quickly. With so many young people living in shared accommodation, it is easy to see why they are increasingly falling victim to identity theft.

The need for education

Identity Theft: The People Trying to Steal your Name

Clearly, we need to educate people and – with so many young people hit by fraud, maybe that education should start in the classroom. After all, Wikipedia can tell you everything you need to know about an ox-bow lake…

City of London Police Commander Chris Greany – the national coordinator for economic crime – said,

“With close to half of all crime now either fraud or cyber crime, we all need to make sure we protect our identity. ID fraud is the key to unlocking your valuables. Things like weak passwords or not updating your software are the same as leaving a window or door unlocked.”

Cifas deputy chief executive Mike Haley was another who called for better education about fraud and financial crime.

“Nearly nine out of ten identity frauds are committed online,” he said. “Everyone is at risk and we all need to make it more difficult for fraudsters.”

What steps can we take to protect ourselves?

  • First and foremost, limit the information that you give away on sites like Facebook: if they really are your friend, people know where you live and the date of your birthday
  • Keep your computer’s firewall, anti-virus software and anti-spyware programmes up to date. Experts estimate that up to 80% of internet threats can be removed simply by doing this
  • Never share passwords. And everyone should know by now that the name of your pet followed by ‘66’ is not adequate. Neither is a variation on your address: I once did some work which required me to know a client’s password. Their address was (let’s say) 38 Buckleberry: their password was Buckleberry38…
  • Try not to use the same password for different accounts. That can be really difficult now that we all have several online accounts, but think it through: using the same password means that a fraudster could access all your accounts if he also knew your e-mail address  
  • Lastly, shred your personal documents before you throw them away. This doesn’t make piecing together your details impossible: it does mean someone rifling through your dustbin will move on to easier pickings next door

Final thoughts

Taking steps like these are vitally important – fraudsters will always be looking for the next loophole to exploit and there seems to be an ever-increasing number of ways for people to lose money. And fraudsters will always prey on carelessness and vulnerability – as the recent spike in online dating scams painfully testifies. Once upon a time, it was enough to believe the simple advice your dad gave you: “if it seems too good to be true it is too good to be true.” Now we also need to tell our children to board up their letterbox, learn at least ten different passwords and not to fall in love online….