Helen Monks on how to beat the conmen who steal your identity and spend your money
Barian Baluchi had no medical qualifications and had once been a minicab driver. But this did not stop him performing surgical operations or being called to give expert evidence in court cases by various government departments and charities. Baluchi had stolen the identity of a former trainee doctor, then that of a Spanish psychiatrist, in order for him to register with the General Medical Council.

While some of his patients complained of agonising pain after "treatment" with the bogus doctor, Baluchi's ID thefts paved the way for a wealthy lifestyle, complete with a five-bedroom house in west London costing pounds 670,000, a Mercedes with the registration D8CTR and private schooling for his daughter. He has been jailed for 10 years.

Cases of identity theft as dramatic as this might be rare, but more and more people are being affected adversely by this crime. Companies such as Capital Bank have recognised this public concern in their current ad campaign featuring impressionist Alastair McGowan.

Jemma Smith, of the Association for Payment Clearing Services, says: "The latest figures show a 66 per cent jump between 2003 and 2004 when pounds 37m was lost by consumers to ID theft. ID theft also costs the economy about pounds 1.3bn a year."

Worryingly, not only is identity theft one of the fastest-growing crimes in the UK, experts say we can also expect it to become much more widespread as chip and PIN cards work to reduce credit card fraud, leaving thieves to turn to ID theft to plug the gap.

By stealing paper-based ID such as your passport, driver's licence and bank statements, or online ID, such as passwords or personal security questions (the pet's or mother's maiden name sometimes used to verify who you are by banks and the like), thieves can remove cash from accounts, take out credit cards and loans or commit benefit fraud, all in your name.

Typical methods of stealing someone's ID include burglars taking personal documentation and chequebooks, thieves intercepting your post and applying for credit in your name, or scamsters dredging rubbish bins for crucial information that can furnish them with the details that they need to steal your ID.

Ms Smith says an increasingly common method used to extract precious information from unwitting victims is "phishing"; this involves frauds sending an e-mail that looks as if it has come from your bank and asks you for passwords and PIN numbers.

The consequences of identity theft can be extremely distressing: the first that victims might know they have been compromised might be a letter from a creditor demanding money when, as far as they are concerned, they have never been in contact with the company; or the victim might go to a cash machine only to discover their current account has been emptied.

While under the British Banking Code you are protected against the financial losses of purchases and credit arising if your identity is stolen, unravelling the havoc caused by stolen identity can waste about 300 hours, according to the Home Office, once you have reported the crime and made calls and sent letters to various authorities and companies.

The people most vulnerable to identity theft include those who have lost their wallet or purse, people whose pin numbers and passwords are the same for every online service they use, and those who throw away receipts, bank statements and utility bills without shredding them first.

As well as investing in a shredder, what else can you do to avoid becoming a victim and minimise the damage to your nerves and your pocket if you are one of the unfortunate ones? Signing up with the free Mailing Preference Service to stop direct mail, including offers of loans and credit cards, being sent to you will reduce the chances of your being hit by the ID fraudsters.

If you fear you have been a victim of ID theft, you need to report the matter as soon as you can to your local police station and ask for a crime reference number. You will need this number to recover any losses. For details of which police station to report to, visit www.police.uk. Worried consumers might consider checking their credit reports frequently with all three credit reference agencies (details below). This will only cost you a few pounds for each report and ought to show up questionable applications for credit.

Other preventative measures include not writing down your PIN number or not keeping it with your card. Also, do not disclose it to anyone and try to leave all unnecessary credit cards and identification at home when you go out.

Get into the habit of checking bank and credit card statements against receipts. If you find any unfamiliar transactions, contact your bank or credit card company immediately, as fraudsters often test the water with a small transaction first to see if it is picked up, before attempting a larger theft.

If you think you have been a victim of identity theft, you could consider subscribing to the fraud prevention service CIFAS's protective registration service. A notice will be placed on your credit file indicating documents have been stolen and that you may therefore be at risk of identity fraud. Companies will seek further verification of the identity of those applying for credit. The service costs pounds 11.75.

It is worth noting that impersonation of the dead is though to be Britain's fastest-growing identity theft crime, with about 56,000 cases in 2003 alone. CIFAS advises funeral directors and relatives to take care not to include the age, date of birth or address of the deceased in any advertisements or announcements relating to the death or the funeral.

Other prudent steps include immediately notifying government departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the Inland Revenue, of the death, plus returning any pension or allowance books by registered delivery.

Relatives should also organise mail to be re-directed to their own address and ought not to rely on collecting mail from the property, especially if the property is empty or for sale. If you are selling it, insist all viewings of empty properties are accompanied, as following a death, identity fraudsters have been known to organise viewings of empty properties with estate agents specifically to steal or collect mail.

You can also register the deceased with both the CIFAS protective registration service and the Mailing Preference Service. A more recent option available to the living potential victims of identity theft is insurance plans.

Identity Protection Plan was launched last year and offers policyholders access to staff who can advise on prevention of ID fraud, as well as annual credit records information and advice on reading it, protective registration, and up to pounds 25,000 to cover legal costs, loss of earnings and personal assistance should you become a victim of ID theft. The annual cost is just under pounds 40. Stephen Chinn, head of Identity Protection Plan, says: "Customers have one point of contact which can help draft letters to creditors or discuss issues of concern and offer advice."

CIFAS www.cifas.org.uk

0870 010 2091

Experian www.experian.co.uk 0870 241 6212

Callcredit www.callcredit.co.uk

0113 244 1555

Mailing Preference Service www.mpsonline.org.uk

0845 703 4599


n Shred all documents and receipts containing personal or financial information, or rip them into tiny pieces.

n Study your bank and credit card statements to look for any unusual transactions.

n Register with the Mailing Preference Service to stop your receiving annoying junk mail and help prevent frauds from applying for credit in your name.

n Never disclose your PIN numbers on e-mails, or over the phone, even if the person on the other end says they are from your bank.

n Organise different passwords and PINs for different accounts. It will make it harder for thieves if they manage to steal only some of your details.

`They tried to take thousands from me'

LAST YEAR Jatinder Takhar, a 27-year-old administrator, became a victim of identity theft. Thieves broke into his north London flat and stole his passport, driver's licence and a stash of personal paperwork.

The burglars even took his glasses, perhaps to boost their chances when they attempted to remove thousands of pounds from his bank account in person, by using his passport months after the initial robbery.

Jatinder was also forced to spend time re-establishing his paper identity. "It took about eight months finally to sort out my affairs after my identity was stolen and cost me over pounds 100; and having to replace my documents meant I had to postpone my summer holiday."

However, he says, the most upsetting element of the whole experience came seven months down the line when the thieves tried to clean out his account: "I had tried to forget about the whole thing, so when they tried to steal from me again, months later, it felt as if I were being taken advantage of all over again."

Luckily, the bank cashier's suspicions were aroused and the thieves fled, but the whole experience left Jatinder feeling vulnerable to problems outside his control.