Talk about being blindsided.You pick up the phone and find yourself speaking to a collections agent. Why haven’t you been keeping up with your credit card payments, the agent wants to know, or how come you’re behind on your mortgage? And, while we’re at it, how’s that new car you drove off the lot six weeks ago and haven’t made a payment on?
Hah, you say. Wrong number, pal. Can’t be me. I’ve never missed a bill payment, I own my own home outright and I drive a 12-year-old Ford. You’re about to hang up when the agent starts rattling off personal information that sends a shiver down your spine. The deadbeat that the agent is pursuing has your name, your address, your driver’s licence number, your social insurance number and a whole lot else besides.
Slowly it starts to sink in. You have become a victim of identity theft. Someone has used your personal information to obtain credit and gone on a spending spree. Your problem – and make no mistake, you have a problem – will be to prove you are not the person responsible. Not so easy, according to researchers at McMaster University, who found that Canadian victims of identity fraud spent 20 million hours of their time and $150 million of their own money in 2008 proving they were not responsible for crimes perpetrated in their names.
According to PhoneBusters, a Canadian anti-fraud call centre, 11,370 victims of identity theft in Canada reported losses of nearly $9.6 million in 2008. If the numbers don’t seem to add up with those of the McMaster study, it’s because, according to MU professor Milena Head, identity theft is a “grossly underreported” crime.
The most common forms include unauthorized credit card purchases and new loans taken out in the victim’s name. Identity thieves generally acquire personal information by stealing mail, sifting through garbage or stealing from company databases.
The upside to these grim statistics, says Al Vonkeman, executive director of the Alberta Crime Prevention Association, is that Canadians are becoming more conscious of identity theft. “People are shredding a lot more and becoming more aware of how they give out personal information,” he says.
Unfortunately, the companies that hold our private details have been “perhaps a little slower on the uptake,” says Vonkeman. In other words, loan officers don’t have time to knock on doors to see if new homeowners are who they say they are. And credit card companies are reluctant to implement restrictive security measures that may prove a barrier to legitimate applicants. The odd $15,000 write-off isn’t big enough to faze a multi-billion-dollar institution, but the result is less protection for the consumer.
The good news is that the federal government is currently beefing up the laws regarding identity theft by making it a crime to possess another person’s identification without just cause. Still, Vonkeman insists that when it comes to safeguarding identity, “nobody out there is going to protect your information as well as you.”
Plug the social networking leak
Social networking sites are a goldmine for identity thieves looking for personal information, says Jean-François Legault, senior manager with Deloitte & Touche’s forensic and dispute services practice in Montreal. He explains that criminals posing as “friends” can obtain vital information, including birthdates, phone numbers and email addresses. What’s more, a qualitative personal detail like “mother’s maiden name” becomes readily available on Facebook where participating extended family may be clearly labelled as part of your clan.
Legault advises social networkers to seriously limit the amount of information they post because, in addition to being available to thieves directly, the sites’ data banks are vulnerable to hackers. Sgt. Sylvain Roussel of the RCMP’s Commercial Crime Unit in southern Alberta goes even further.
Learn it, live it
• Buy a shredder and use it to dispose of all personal and financial information.
• Carry only the credit cards and ID you need; leave SIN cards, birth certificates and passports at home.
• Use complicated passwords and change them annually.
• Check your credit score annually via consumer credit reporting agencies such as TransUnion or Equifax.