A 2017 study on identity theft released by Javelin Strategy and Research, a research-based advisory and consultancy firm in California, revealed that $16bn was stolen from 15,4m U.S consumers during 2016. The figures are on the rise, a terrifying thought, given that $107bn has been stolen from unsuspecting victims in the US in the past six years. Identity theft has also reached epidemic levels in the UK where it has been estimated that as many as 500 incidents are now being reported on a daily basis. While there’s no hard South African data, it has been estimated that this particular type of crime costs our economy around R1bn per annum.
The problem is bound to get worse. Criminals are getting smarter and although, in the past, many believed that only the gullible are relieved of their hard-earned cash, things are changing and these days anyone with an identity number is now at risk. Previously, thieves were simply content to steal the odd credit card and max it out before the card was reported stolen.
The criminals have now realised they can ‘earn’ far more if they can get their hands on an identity card or swindle an ID number from an unsuspecting victim. One of the ways (and identity theft comes in many guises) they do this by opening accounts in your name and running up enormous debts on your behalf. By the time you’re alerted to it, it’s often already too late to avoid the pain of having to prove to creditors that you are not responsible.
We are forced to use our identity numbers all the time and therein lies part of the problem.
“With today’s technology it is virtually impossible to protect your identity from somebody who wants it,” says private investigator, Brad Nathanson from Brad Nathanson Investigations. “Search engines today require only a name and date of birth in order for us to establish an identity number and with your identity number there is very little that you can hide from us as investigators. Imagine how easy this is for those with criminal intent.”
He says that his company has seen fraudulent identity documents passed off as originals that only fail under intense scrutiny. “Likewise, RICA, FICA and the like work in the favour
of those who need to trace a subject for whatever reason and are of little to no benefit to law-abiding citizens unless they are applying for finance. We have known documents to be commissioned as ‘true copies’ without the commissioner ever having seen the original.”
While it may have become easier to become a victim, there are ways in which you can protect yourself from identity theft. Safeguarding your passwords, shredding bank statements and not handing out personal information over the phone offers a certain level of protection.
Top tip: Be particularly careful when supplying people with your identity number. You should know precisely who you are talking to and why they need your identity number. If you’re unsure, rather double check with the company concerned and verify that they have measures in place to protect your identity.
More often than not, victims only become aware that they are being impersonated when they apply for further credit. Not every identity fraudster will engage in transactions that reflect on your bank statement. And while you should always take the time to scrutinise your bank statements, it’s not a foolproof way of ensuring you haven’t become a victim. A credit report will, however, provide a comprehensive view of any credit activity in your name.
Under the National Credit Act (NCA) all South Africans are entitled to one free credit report per annum. However, it may be an idea to take the plunge and pay for additional reports throughout the year in order to double check that no one other than yourself is using your identity to run up thousands of rand worth of debt. The report will indicate the name of the creditor and the date the account was opened. It will also indicate what enquiries have been made by which company. Unauthorised enquiries should raise red flags as this could be a sign that someone is trying to fraudulently access your credit.
Anyone who believes they are victims of identity theft should do the following:
- Report the theft to the South African Police Services.
- Complete an ID theft affidavit.
- Phone AND write to the credit bureau immediately and report the fraud.
- Phone AND write to all creditors informing them of the fraud.