#ConsumerWatch: Treat all your personal information like gold
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Black Friday has come and gone, which means the silly season is upon us. It also means fraudsters are on the prowl, because your personal information is like gold to a crook.
You might ask, how much damage can be done with just an ID number? A lot.
Lisa Thomas, the senior director of marketing at TransUnion Africa, said your ID number is “more than enough” for a fraudster to perpetrate identity theft.
“Just an ID number can be sufficient to manufacture all the necessary IDs and paperwork.”
She said a TransUnion survey showed identity theft to be rife: every second South African has been, or knows, someone who has been, a victim. And a Carte Blanche exposé in April showed no one is immune.
The programme revealed a syndicate operating in Soshanguve, outside Pretoria, selling fake IDs and profiles for R3000 - or more, depending on the credit profile of the 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 when anyone applies for credit.”
Shockingly, the investigation showed the identity thief bought an expensive vehicle, “but it doesn’t stop there - stolen profiles are also often used to purchase anything from jewellery to groceries and open store accounts or a cellphone contracts”.
Thomas said the consequences of identity theft were not only administratively and financially dire, they can be emotionally difficult too, given the invasion of privacy.
“Most victims will cite the excessive time and administrative overheads required to deal with the matter, often taking months to resolve.
“In addition, there are all kinds of expenses a victim may incur, such as travel and legal expenses, with some having to attend court hearings.”
A victim’s credit profile is likely to be hurt, preventing them from accessing credit and other financial services, while the issue is being resolved. And if victims cannot obtain clearance letters for the fraudulent accounts, they will be liable to settle those.
“Maintaining the safety of your personal information is paramount and it’s also important to keep an eye out for signs that it may have been stolen and is being used to perform fraudulent transactions.
Philisiwe Mbelu wrote to me about her frustrations after discovering a notification from her bank that they had sent her bank statement to Home Choice.
“I called Standard Bank and advised them this was not requested by myself. I contacted Home Choice and found out someone had created an account with them and also made a purchase. The store informed me the purchase had been cancelled,” she said.
“I proceeded to the police station and created an affidavit. The police issued an incident report number. The following day I sent an email to all my credit providers. Monde Mobile advised that someone had placed an order but they were also able to cancel this when I advised that it was not done by myself.”
Mbelu then tried to check her credit report, as is advised, but the fraudster had opened a profile on her behalf so she wasn’t able to do so.
“The process is taking too long and I fear the imposter might run up more debt while I try to sort this out.”
Luzane van der Merwe said her ID and driving licence were stolen.
“Is there any way I can red flag my ID as being stolen and that all transactions done under my name would in some manner be questioned?
“Any advice would be appreciated. I don’t want to be married to someone I can’t divorce because I don’t even have any idea where to find him.
“What can I possibly do to prevent the consequences of a stolen ID?”
Manie van Schalkwyk, executive director of the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS), said it offers a free service to consumers and if you are a victim - or suspect your identity has been compromised - you should contact it.
SAFPS, a non-profit organisation started by the credit industry as a platform for confirming fraud, said before credit is granted, the credit bureaus contact it to see if the applicant is listed with it.
Its database also lists the details of victims of ID fraud and offer a service to consumers which enables it to list their information if they’ve lost their IDs but aren’t victims - yet.
“Once it’s listed on our protective database, free of charge, creditors are warned that the ID number is at risk - so they will ask for more proof that you are who you say you are.”
Van Schalkwyk said it was a pain for victims of identity fraud, because consumers are treated like criminals until they can prove otherwise. And it’s a process to restore your profile. The creditor, though, is also a victim, he noted, because they won’t get paid.
“Treat your ID, bank card numbers and other personal information like you would cash. Make sure you give it to only people who should have it.”
That includes call centres: always treat unsolicited phone calls, SMSes and emails with deep suspicion, especially if they ask for your ID number and full name and surname for “quality and security purposes”.
Van Schalkwyk suggested that, when in doubt, go with your gut and rather call them back yourself if it’s important - not on the number they provide, google the contact details.
He said it is vital to shred documents. “Don’t just throw out your bank statements out. People harvest that information from bins, recycling and so on.”
Don’t respond to SMSes, emails or calls claiming you’ve won a prize - or that a long-lost relative has left you money.
“Fraudsters are eager to get you thinking you need to provide information. The ‘bank’ calls, telling you there’s an abnormal debit order, which they believe is fraudulent and the call centre agent might say, ‘oh dear, our systems are slow, please give me the information’. They pressure you.”
Thomas said you should also check your credit report, because it will reflect whether someone has made an enquiry about your credit profile or has opened an account in your name.
“Usually fraudsters will attempt to open credit accounts in your name using your personal information.
“The prevention will be to check your bank accounts and credit profile regularly to ensure that no strange activity is taking place without your consent.”
Telltale signs of ID fraud
Lisa Thomas, senior director of marketing – Africa at TransUnion, says victims of identity fraud usually find out they’re in hot water when:
◆You notice withdrawals from your bank account or charges on your credit card for purchases you haven’t made.
◆Your credit report (available for free once a year via www.transunion.co.za or one of the other credit bureaus) shows accounts you haven’t opened, or credit checks done by companies you haven’t done business with.
◆You’re denied credit for a purchase, even though your credit record should support the application.
◆You receive an account for services or products you haven’t used or bought.
◆You receive a credit card you never applied for.
◆Debtors contact you about accounts you never opened.
◆You discover that a tax return has been filed using your ID number.
◆Your medical aid rejects a limit-related claim when you’re not near your limit.
If you've been a victim of ID fraud
SMS “ProtectID” or 43366 – the Southern African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS) will call you. Or you can visit their website, or contact them on Twitter or Facebook. They will guide you through the process.
You could also register with an identity theft protection service such a TrueIdentity, available through TransUnion.
“TrueIdentity will monitor your credit report for critical changes, as well as any signs of your personal details on the dark web. In addition, the restitution service and insurance benefits will help you recover, should your identity be stolen and used fraudulently. It is important that you buy the product before you become aware of any identity theft as you may not be covered by the restitution and insurance services.”
If the suspected identity theft is perpetrated online, consider changing passwords for your various accounts – especially those related to banking and finance, as well as email, social media and any accounts where your credit card may be saved as a payment method.
If you suspect your bank accounts may have been compromised, consider closing these and getting new accounts and PIN numbers.
* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.