By Dominique Bowen
In March this year, international credit bureau TransUnion was the target of a criminal hacking group in a data breach that saw the culprits access the personal information of 54 million consumers. It was just one of what’s worryingly becoming a series of large consumer database breaches.
Identity theft is not a new danger, but the techniques criminals use are constantly evolving in their sophistication. It makes sense when you consider that personal data has been dubbed ‘the oil of the digital era’, as the most valuable and most vulnerable commodity.
It’s no longer enough to be vigilant at the ATM or protect your bank card from being skimmed. Collecting information from, say, your driver’s licence and municipal bill, a criminal is equipped with the information to assume your identity quite convincingly, and unlock the benefits that come with that. According to the South African Banking Risk Information Centre, in the wrong hands, your data can be used to open bank and retail accounts, take out subscriptions, or even defraud your insurance, medical aid and Unemployment Insurance Fund. They could also change your passwords to access sensitive information, and impersonate you to withdraw funds from your investments. And these are the immediate repercussions. Once credit accounts are created, it’s only a matter of time before your credit score takes a nosedive.
Identity theft in the digital realm
Many of us have at some point answered a call from an unknown number about ‘fraudulent charges’ on our bank account. Following a script, the social engineer on the other end rattles off a few accurate details about your bank profile, before they prompt you for an information exchange; it could be to confirm a series of digits in your ID number or related unique identifier. Now, because they’ve painted a mask of trustworthiness, already seemingly an employee of an organisation you’ve consented to storing your information, naturally it doesn’t occur to you straight away that you are being converted from a target into a victim by a dubious operation.
It’s possible that they have already got hold of your ID number, and used it to buy your entire profile on the Dark Web. By ‘falling’ for their story, it is easier to be tricked into filling in the missing piece of the puzzle they have of you, and ultimately hand over the key to your funds or any other unique identifier that can help them impersonate you.
Another place you can easily be targeted is your cellphone or computer. Hackers are becoming increasingly crafty in how they present themselves online and in your inbox, using phishing, malware and viruses to gain control of your device and hold your data hostage.
Stay aware of these signs
It helps to be observant of details in your day-to-day when it comes to your money and any communication you receive related to transactions.
Pay attention to SMSs from lenders and banks. You could receive a message about a credit account in your name that you’re not aware of, for example, or even escalation to debt collectors for a loan you never took out.
Make a point of scanning your bank statements for transactions you don’t recognise. Then, perhaps most important is to regularly pull a credit report. “By accessing it, you can spot any fraudulent accounts and personal information and dispute it,” says Anna-Rita Celliers of South African credit bureau XDS. “It’s best to check it once a month, just to be safe,” she recommends. You could go one step further and activate alerts on your profile when a change is detected by registering with ID Hero or Splendi, she says.
Can you clear your name?
Yes, and you should. A tarnished credit profile has consequences that can become an obstacle to progress in different areas of your life. Credit checks often come up in the hiring process for a job, or the clearance during a rental application. Your credit score is also something future lenders will check when you want to buy your dream home, or take out that emergency loan.
“If you suspect any suspicious behaviour or a fraudulent account opened on your name, immediately contact your bank, the company in question, and the South African Police Service,” says Celliers. “This will allow you to put a stop to the fraud on the spot.”
She also suggests logging a dispute with each of the main credit bureaus to have the transgressions removed from your profile. Then, as a proactive measure, consider registering with the South African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS) for protective registration. “This will put a mark on your credit profile at each credit bureau so that if someone does try and apply for credit with your ID number, it will be flagged and not approved,” she explains. Worth noting is that this will prevent you from being able to apply for credit while the mark is on your profile.