Internet identity thieves strike once every four minutes in

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The Independent Online

The disturbing prevalence of identity fraud is revealed in figures published today that show one in four people have either fallen victim or know of someone who has been defrauded. Experts estimate that an identity theft happens every four minutes in this country, costing approximately £1.3bn a year.

The disturbing prevalence of identity fraud is revealed in figures published today that show one in four people have either fallen victim or know of someone who has been defrauded. Experts estimate that an identity theft happens every four minutes in this country, costing approximately £1.3bn a year.

The data published by the consumer magazine Which? reveals that 10 per cent of people have been first-hand victims and a further 15 per cent know someone who has had their identity stolen.

Detective Chief Superintendent Ken Farrow, of the City of London fraud squad, said: "ID theft is becoming a very prevalent crime, as it's comparatively low risk for criminals. You really need to be on your guard at all times, and certainly don't be complacent that it won't happen to you."

Using its own editor, Malcolm Coles, as experimental prey, Which? discovered it was surprisingly simple to clone someone's life. A researcher managed to get hold of his birth certificate, mother's maiden name and mortgage details - the information necessary to commit a crime - with relative ease. "I couldn't believe how easy it was for someone else to assume my identity," said Mr Coles. "Sitting at my desk was a folder with my birth certificate, a print-out of how often I went to the gym and my mortgage details. If this is what an amateur can do, imagine how easy it is for an experienced criminal."

The consumer magazine survey of 975 people found that 68 per cent were concerned about ID fraud yet half of those questioned used the same password for all online accounts despite the risk.

New technology and the internet in particular has made it easier for thieves to exploit victims. Spam e-mails often contain viruses that can be used by hackers to access sensitive information on home computers.

Another problem is "phishing"," where bank customers receive bogus e-mails trying to get them to reveal security details.

Offline, thieves make bogus phone calls from "banks" requesting security details, read credit card strips to clone cards, and raid bins for documents such as bank statements.

Which? suggested a few measures to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of identity fraud. Never use your mother's maiden name or place of birth as security passwords, check your credit file annually for suspect applications, ensure you pass on details about any change of address, shred or rip up sensitive documents before throwing them away, and never use the same password on more than one account or carry details of your address along with bank cards.

Mr Coles added: "It's too easy for fraudsters to get hold of basic information, which is where the process of stealing an identity begins."

HOW THE BANK CHIEF WAS CLONED

In an era when anyone's identity is fair game, even a respected financier can fall prey, as the chief executive of Skipton Building Society discovered. It was not until John Goodfellow's card was refused by a cash dispenser that he suspected something was afoot. Even then his bank simply said his card had been disabled when a new one was dispatched three weeks earlier.

When a second replacement card and a statement for the current account failed to turn up, he inquired further. Only then did he discover someone had changed the address on his account to one in London. "Ten weeks went by and one of my credit card companies called to say I was about to go into default, having not paid for months. I said it was most unlike me, they only had to look at my payment record," said Mr Goodfellow.

On a hunch, he asked them to check the address on his record only to discover the credit card had also been changed to the fictional London location. "I spent the next two and half hours ringing all my card companies."

Mr Goodfellow was lucky. Without the PIN numbers the thief or thieves were unable to take any money. But he still has never been informed how they managed to change the address on his account and credit card.