The theft and use of personal information about an actual person, either living or dead, is referred to as identity theft. Businesses may also be victims of identity theft.
In Australia, the risk is still relatively small. But having your identity stolen can be devastating. Police and your bank will work with you to solve any problems arising from identity theft.
How it happens
Identity theft can happen in many ways. It can range from someone using your credit illegally, to having your entire identity assumed by another person and business conducted in your name without your consent.
Important personal information can be accessed by a determined thief, despite your best efforts. For example:
- Your wallet or purse is stolen with all your identifying cards.
- Your home is burgled and personal documents stolen.
- Important documents, such as bank statements and taxation return, are stolen from your letterbox.
- Mail is diverted to another address without your knowledge.
- Rubbish (or that of businesses you have dealt with) may be searched.
- You are the victim of a scam and have been conned into providing personal information over the telephone or by email.
- Your personal computer may be hacked into, or hackers may get into the computers of businesses that hold your personal information.
- ATM or EFTPOS transactions may be monitored by hidden devices or seen by someone in the queue.
- Credit cards may be skimmed at retail outlets or restaurants.
How to protect yourself
Personal information is shared almost everyday as you pay bills, log on to a computer, or engage with any number of transactions with other people and organisations. You can take an active role in reducing the risk of your identity being used without your knowledge. First, you need to recognise where you might be vulnerable and then make changes to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft.
Do's and dont's
The National Crime Prevention Program has published a comprehensive guide with safety suggestions and further information. There are also a number of other online resources with useful safety suggestions and advice.
- Aim to provide a minimum amount of information about yourself.
- Destroy identifying information when you are throwing out personal papers.
- Check your billing and account records carefully.
- Limit the amount of credit you have in accounts.
- Order a copy of your credit report regularly.
- Place passwords on all your important accounts.
- Avoid using obvious passwords.
- Secure your personal information at home.
- Collect new cheque books or credit cards in person from the bank.
- Secure your mail with a lockable letterbox and only post mail at official post boxes.
- Remove your name from mailing lists if you receive unsolicited mail.
- Write cheques and fill out forms carefully so that they cannot be altered easily.
- Keep a list of all your accounts and credit cards in a secure place.
- Leave anything in your car glove box that could identify you.
- Give out personal information over the phone or by email to people you do not trust.
- Let your credit card out of your sight when paying a bill.
- Lend your personal documents to others.
- Carry personal information unless you have to.
How to report identity theft
It is important to act quickly if your personal information is compromised. Identity theft must be reported to police. Collect and keep any documentation that will help police in investigating the crime. Police may need to take your photograph or fingerprints to establish that your identity is different from that of the person who may be charged with the identity theft.
The following steps may also be necessary:
- Contact your bank or credit provider immediately and cancel all cards.
- Freeze or close all accounts to which the thief may have gained access.
- Make sure you have some way of accessing cash for the time it will take to get new cards issued.
- Open new accounts with new PINs and passwords.
- Contact the Credit Reporting Agency and ask that an alert be placed on your file.
- Check your credit file carefully for unauthorised transactions or changes.
- Keep all documentary evidence of fraud.
- Never send originals away in the mail.
- Police and your bank can help you solve any problems arising from identity theft.