ID theft: we're throwing away £1.7bn a year

Take precautions with your personal details: don't let the bin raiders steal your identity

"People have got to stop being so complacent. [Home] owners spend thousands of pounds protecting their properties against burglary, but [new] research shows that virtually everyone in the country is literally handing over their identity to bin raiders."

That's the stark warning from Tyron Hill, spokesman for a national campaign against ID fraud, as he broods over figures suggesting that 97 per cent of British households - more than 21 million homes - are still putting valuable material for fraudsters out with the rubbish. This information, adds Mr Hill, includes mail, receipts and other scraps of paper disclosing our full name, sex, address, postcode or bank details - the kind of financial profile, in other words, sought by bin raiders who want to take out credit or open accounts using the name of their victims.

One in three people bin correspondence quoting their full, 16-digit credit or debit card number, and 46 per cent routinely throw away an item containing their full bank account details, according to Fellowes, a shredder manufacturer.

Despite repeated warnings to consumers from bodies including the Metro- politan Police, Crimestoppers, Cifas (the UK's fraud- prevention service) and credit-reference agencies, ID fraud is on the rise and now costs the British economy £1.7bn a year.

Cifas reports that at the end of September this year, the number of reported victims had reached 51,025 - a record level and a 21 per cent increase on the first three quarters of 2005.

Meanwhile, a new report from the credit-reference agency Experian sheds light on the latest ID fraud trends.

While the crime affects people across the country, the risk of falling prey to it is four times greater for Londoners, on average, than other British residents.

Today, the most common form of ID theft is "present address fraud", where the victim's details are used by someone living at the same address. Usually, the most vulnerable addresses are those with shared mailboxes, or flats with shared hallways where post is left on a table for residents.

While you may have taken precautions (see the box below) and noticed nothing suspicious about your finances, be aware that ID fraud is a "hidden" crime and can take well over a year to come to light - 450 days on average, reports Experian.

It might only become apparent that there's a problem when bailiffs turn up at your address requesting money, or when an application for a mortgage or credit card is refused.

If you do fall victim, don't panic but do act promptly and tell the police. "Lenders and other organisations are used to dealing with cases of fraud and will try to help you sort things out as quickly as possible," says Experian spokeswoman Jill Stevens.

Keep a record of all phone calls, letters and emails connected with the fraud.

Despite requests from the National Consumer Council for a "one-stop-shop" support centre for victims of ID theft - funded by businesses and operated over the telephone and internet - little has emerged so far except for a feasibility study.

The cost in terms of distress and time spent reclaiming your identity is considerable: you can face up to 300 hours putting the record straight, Experian estimates.

In nearly all cases, however, people do not suffer a direct financial loss as a result of a fraud being carried out in their name. This casts doubt on the sale of ID fraud "protection policies" by providers such as the Halifax and Allianz Cornhill.

For example, Smile's Identity Protection Alert offers up to £50,000 to "cover the costs of restoring your identity, including legal fees and lost wages".

But such cover isn't cheap, costing up to £60 a year, and the policies were slammed by the consumer body Which? as "the most useless financial product" in a report last year.

The money, it said, "would be much better spent on a shredder and protection software for your PC".

How to foil the fraudsters

* Shred or otherwise destroy anything containing personal information before throwing it away.

* Monitor bank and credit card statements for unfamiliar entries, and check your credit report on a regular basis by applying to either Equifax, Callcredit or Experian at a cost of £2.

* Never give out personal details over the phone - even if the caller claims to be from your bank. Ask for his name and department and call back using a phone number you already have for that organisation.

* If you move home, re-direct post by contacting the Royal Mail Redirection Service ( www.royalmail.com or 0845 774 0740).

* Make sure you update the electoral roll, and register your name and old address with the Mailing Preference System, to stop direct marketing offers and unsolicited mail going to that property after you've left.

* For more information go to www.stop-idfraud.co.uk.

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