Features Example 3

Whose identity is it anyway?

For Marie Claire

The newly paved drives are laden with expensive cars, flash Mercedes, convertible Audi’s and BMW’s. Peering through the windows laced with lavish curtains, the trendy décor is evident with bold colours reflecting off the large plasma screen televisions. On each of the detached houses on this quiet cul-de-sac in Bushmead, Luton, security alarms flash like quaint Christmas lights to deter burglars. But today, crooks are having an easier time. We’re throwing away credit checks with crisp packets, bank statements with banana skins and we’re giving our personal information away to any Jo Bloggs online. Criminals are  stealing the most important possession we have- our identities.
Identity theft or impersonation fraud is the misuse of a person’s identity such as their name, date of birth or address without their consent. The crime costs the UK economy £1.7 billion which works out as £35 per adult per year.

It took Kelly Poon, a 25-year-old fashion buyer from the sleepy suburb in Luton six years to realise that she had fallen victim to the crime. “When I move out of University halls, I lost my folder that I kept my passport and birth certificate in it. I reported it to the passport agency but I didn’t know who to contact about the birth certificate so in the end, I just forgot about it” she said. Two years after graduating from Bournemouth university, Kelly tried to get a mortgage with her partner Martin, a 27-year-old IT consultant from London. “We kept getting rejected so my broker advised me to get a credit check. When it came though, it turned out that I was £7000 in debt. I was shocked. I didn’t have a credit card at university as my parents helped me out with money so I had no idea where the debt had come from.” The passport and birth certificate Kelly lost were used to open up a bank account in her name. “When it was eventually proven that I had my identity stolen, the bank dropped the debt but it still affects me now. I used to do most of my shopping on line but now, the thought of having someone stealing my identity puts me off using it.”

Worryingly, Kelly is not alone. She’s one of the six million people in Britain who believe they have been a victim of identity theft. And this figure is likely to rise. A report by gas and electricity provider Npower is warning that the number of Brits who are fleeced by identity crooks each year will double to 200,000 by 2010. The survey also shows that 18-39 year olds are the main victims and perpetrators of the crime with the majority of victims being women. Zoe Coombs, spokesperson for Npower said: “Women in their early twenties are at a higher risk of becoming victims of identity theft as they’re more likely to be nomadic, living in rented property or moving out of university halls. However, women in their late twenties and early thirties are also at a higher risk as they show little restraint when it comes to sharing personal information.”
Despite most victims of identity theft knowing their perpetrator, more than two thirds of women aged between twenty-five and thirty years-old have given their friends or family pin codes for cash cards or usernames and passwords for online banking. Criminologist Emma Finch says “People behave really naively on the internet. We wouldn’t tell strangers in the street our bank details so it shouldn’t be any different when we’re online. Fraudsters are using Internet dating chat rooms and shopping websites to get personal details so never disclose anything to anyone. Always think are my details safe with you?”

Online identity theft has become a multi-billion pound industry for hackers and now organised gangs are getting in on the act as well. Phishing is the latest scam, where fraudulent emails pretending to be from banks are used to get account details. Once obtained, these details are then used to operate accounts fraudulently. A survey from BT shows that almost half of 18-30 year old women in the UK do not know what phishing is and 61% have only one password for all of their accounts. Mathew Hart, a spokesperson for BT said: “Change passwords frequently and have novel ones, too many people have passwords that are easy to guess and the most popular is the word password itself.”

Last year, Marion Tooley, a project manager from St Albans received a phone call from her bank after expensive items were purchased using her card. “I was on my lunch break and got a call from the bank asking to confirm that I was on a shopping trip and had just spent £550 on my card. At first, I thought it had been a friend messing about.” A few days earlier, Marion received an email asking to confirm her personal banking details. She replied; giving her account detail, sort code and security number. “I had never even heard of this type of identity theft before, I just thought that it was a routine email being sent out by the bank to al customers” she said.

Melanie Mitchley, Director of Industry Relations at Callcredit said: “Banks or companies such as Ebay or Amazon will never ask for your personal details in an email. It’s so easy to make an authentic looking email, all it takes is the company logo and font and most people are fooled.”
Despite the launch of the Home Office campaign in 2005 to combat the problem of identity theft, a third of Britons are still throwing away personal documents without shredding them and a quarter admit to not checking their bank statements.

Last year, in the UK, stolen identities were used to conduct 2500 sham marriages, 3500 fake licences and 1600 counterfeit passports. Martin Gill, identity theft specialist and Professor of Criminology at the University of Leicester said: “Official statistics relating to cases of identity theft are not indicative of the true scale of this growing crime as many cases go unrecorded or undetected. It’s easy for a thief to steal someone’s identity and as research indicates, people under thirty are not as cautious as they should be when it comes to safeguarding their own personal details and those of others. At that age, it isn’t really seen as important. “ Martin warns women in particular to take more responsibility over their personal information. “If a criminal gets their hands on your credit rating, they can get up to £60,000 in credit. Throw away things with your details on and they can get £10,000 out of your savings and loose a passport or driving license and they can make counterfeit ones which have street values of £5,000 each. That means that the average person’s identity is worth £80,000- so look after it, it’s something worth protecting. “