Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the world: experts believe that someone's identity is stolen somewhere in the world every two seconds. Yet most people believe it cannot happen to them until it is too late and their credit worthiness has been destroyed.
According to TransUnion, South Africa's largest credit bureau, because identity theft is a "silent" crime, it can go undetected for months, even years while victims have enormous debts run up in their name.
Many cases of identity theft come to light only when the victim starts receiving accounts and letters of demand for debts they know nothing about; or when their own application for credit is refused because their credit record is in tatters.
A recent exposé on Carte Blanche (MNet Sunday 12 April) showed that no one is immune - and sophisticated ID theft syndicates are right in our own backyard. The television programme uncovered a syndicate operating in Soshanguve, a township near Pretoria, which sells fake Identity documents and identity profiles for just R3 000 - or more, depending on the credit profile of the identity theft victim.
The stolen credit profile purchased by the Carte Blanche undercover investigators included an ID book, bank statements, proof of address… all the documents required by a seller when anyone applies for credit. In the Carte Blanche investigation, the identity thief purchased an expensive motor vehicle, but it doesn't stop there as stolen profiles are also often used to purchase anything from jewellery to groceries, to open a store account or a cell phone contract.
Your identity can be stolen in any number of ways. The syndicates can intercept banking transactions or hack into sites where you've made a cyber-purchase; they can obtain information from your social media profiles; or they can simply steal mail from your postbox or your dustbin - if fact any document, printed or electronic, that contains your name and any other person information about you puts you at risk of identity theft.
Because identity thieves are getting smarter and faster at stealing consumers' personal information, consumers have to act smart and stay ahead of them. There are steps consumers can take to better protect their personal information, as well as products that keep watch over their identity, even when they can't.
Ensure all your private correspondence stays private - lock your postbox; don't throw old accounts away without first destroying them; don't leave personal documents lying around where others could see them; and protect your online identity.
The most important way in which to reduce the risk of online identity theft, is to create strong passwords.
Here's some TransUnion tips for creating strong passwords:
Different account? Different password. If a thief steals from one of your accounts, don't make it easy for them to steal from others.
Don't be obvious. The first passwords thieves will try are ones like: password, 1234567890 or similar.
Be random. Pick something obscure. Don't use your name and stay away from real words
Misspelling is good. If your password is "I hate yellow" replace some letters with numbers and symbols like "1 h8 y3Ll0w
The longer, the better. The longer the password, the harder it could be to figure out.
Use a mnemonic. Think up a sentence, such as "My favourite colour is green," and use the first or last letter of each word as your password ("Mfcig" or "yErsN" in the example).
You need to be able to detect, quickly, whether your identity has been compromised before thieves run up huge debts in your name.
One way is to regularly review your credit and personal information for signs of suspicious activity. Another is to subscribe to a service like the TransUnion Credit Alert service.
When anyone applies for credit from any credit or service provider, an enquiry on that person's credit report is made at a credit bureau.
A TransUnion credit alert advises subscribers via email or SMS that such an enquiry has been made. If the subscriber has not applied for credit, an alert will warn that something is amiss, giving the subscriber the ability to take action before too much damage is done.