Identity fraud, where stolen identities are used to obtain credit, goods and services, is one of the UK's fastest growing crimes. Figures from Experian, the credit reference agency, show fraudulent activity goes undetected by the victim for an average of 16 months.
Jill Stevens, director of consumer relations at Experian, said: "Credit fraudsters often open accounts and use them 'normally' for a few months to gain a lender's confidence, enabling them to set up the account for a big spend. The fraud can then go undetected by the lender until it is too late."
Someone uses another person's personal details to make a fraudulent transaction every eight seconds. The Credit Industry Fraud Avoidance System (CIFAS), says identity theft has more than trebled in three years. In 1999 there were just 20,000 cases. This rose to 53,000 in 2001 and topped 74,000 in 2002.
This year so far there has been a further 20 per cent increase. The offences range from claiming social security benefits to opening a bank account to getting a loan to buying goods and services with a credit card, all in someone else's name.
It costs the economy as much as £1.3bn a year, a Cabinet Office report says. Beverly Hughes, a Home Office minister, says: "Ordinary people's lives can be shattered by identity theft. Even if they do not lose financially, the process of getting their records put right is still time-consuming and stressful."
Experts warn against thinking nothing like this could happen to you. "There are criminals who know how to get your identity and who are determined to use it get your money," says a spokesperson for the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit.
Fraudsters use several tactics to acquire the information. They were recently using deceptive e-mails and fake websites to get online banking customers to reveal their account details. Another, more macabre technique, uncovered by involves creating phoney passports based on the identities of deceased children. A gang searches death notices in local newspapers or scours cemeteries for children's graves. It then accesses public records to build up enough paper work to apply for a passport. A more time-honoured method is to simply rummage through someone's bin.
Experian has found rubbish raiding happened 53 out of 71 urban local authorities. A fraudster looks for letters, statements, bills and receipts. Such documents can reveal their victim's name and address as well as their signature and card number.
The Government has promised to make identity theft a criminal offence. Ministers are also planning to relax the criteria for a prosecution. If someone is caught in possession of a false document he or she will have to prove why they are holding it or face arrest.
Under the existing rules, the onus is on the police to show it was stolen. Equifax, another credit reference agency, welcomes this change. Neil Munroe, external affairs director, says it will "help close the net" on identity theft.
Thousands of front-line staff have begun training on how to spot fraudsters and forgeries. Peter Hurst, the CIFAS chief executive, says: "It is expected to help institutions to isolate even more identity-fraud attempts, over and above the 75 per cent they now detect."
Another recent industry-led move involves changing the way card users confirm their identity at point of sale. Instead of signing on the dotted we will all soon be keying in a PIN number. This system was successfully tested in Northampton and is being rolled out across the UK. Card companies have started issuing "chip and PIN cards", expected to take up to 12 months to complete.
The organisation behind the chip and PIN cards, the Association for Payment Clearing Services (Apacs), says a similar system for debit cards in France has led to an 80 per cent reduction in fraud since its introduction 10 years ago. But much of that is because retailers and restaurants often do not bother to check signatures on credit card slips: asking for a PIN means the customer has to connect directly to the bank.
We can soon expect to have additional safety checks on our mobiles as well. T-Mobile and Cable and Wireless are working on a fraud safety net, the i3G system. It will monitor how a mobile is used and be alert to sudden and unusual changes. If this happens, an operator will ring the mobile and ask the recipient if they are indeed the registered owner, getting them to confirm this by answering a couple of security questions. John Lewis, director of mobile carrier services at Cable & Wireless, says: "The i3G system could help identify criminal use of a mobile before the owner has even realised it's been stolen."
Some experts insist the responsibility for tackling this crime does not just rest with Government and industry. We must also be more careful.
* Treat ALL correspondence and ALL receipts as assets.
* When disposing of them, shred them or make them illegible.
* Check each bank and card statement and each utility bill for any unauthorised transactions.
* Do not automatically give out personal and financial information, especially passwords, even if the person, e-mail or website asking for it comes across as authentic. Always phone the institution concerned to double check
* When you move house, ensure that you inform everyone, including those junk mail senders. Unclaimed letters can be a gold-mine for fraudstersReuse content