The Invisible Criminal

In the UK, it is estimated that identity crime affects nearly 1.8 million people every year. In 2010, over 102,500 cases of identity fraud were recorded by the members of CIFAS (The Fraud Prevention Service), which averages out as 11 cases being reported every hour. Identity crime is estimated to cost the British economy roughly £2.7 billion a year in reparations.

Back in 2005, a PRCI (Perpetuity Research and Consultancy International) study concluded that the most likely victims of identity theft were people aged 31-40 and the findings highlighted that Manchester and Nottingham had a higher rate of impersonation fraud per 1000 population than London. But more recently, some fraudsters have turned their attention towards the student community.

Known for having large injections of cash throughout the year, and making it unwittingly easy to obtain personal information, students have become the new victims for identity thieves. With the increased access of personal information displayed on social networking sites, along with the common use of smartphones, many students are overly forthcoming when it comes to their private details, making them prime targets for identity fraud.

Students are only gradually waking up to the perils of social networking, with more and more stories like “Teenage office worker sacked for moaning on Facebook about her job” hitting the headlines. One survey suggests that 42% of students are concerned that personal information they post online could affect their future employment prospects. So, whilst we are becoming a little more hesitant about posting about last night’s chunder fest, it seems that we might not be aware about how the most simple personal information can be used to forge our identity.

Facebook’s new privacy settings have gone some way to cutting down on unauthorised access to personal information, but many students are still not taking enough precautions. From one Facebook profile, it is possible to find out private contact information, as well as details about family members and recent activities. It may sound harmless, but it has been reported that many fraudsters look for information that may portend to security questions. Mother’s maiden names, first pets and names of primary schools are all pieces of information that can be obtained from various posts and apps on social networking sites.

With the infiltration of the smartphone on campus, we have entire hubs of personal information all stored in one handy mobile device. How many of us have lost our phones to the depths of the dance floor?  It isn’t just social networking sites, but our e-mails, contact numbers and often even our bank details that can be found on our phones. One fraud prevention website proposes that 17% of smartphone owners are now using their mobiles for money matters. Checking bank balances on your mobile, or even having account updates sent to your mobile makes it far too easy for anybody to access your information.

Our new technological capabilities certainly provide fraudsters with new and quick ways of finding out personal information, but most identity fraud is still committed using information obtained from paper documents.  How many students shred their bank statements, student loans letters or NHS documents before throwing them out? How many students remember to change addresses on all their mail when they move house? Not many. Living in a stereotypical student abode on Derby Road, we regularly receive student loans notifications, credit card statements and various marketing mail for ex-students who never left a forwarding address. This makes it exponentially easier for anybody to obtain personal information. Most students wouldn’t even realise that they were still getting mail sent to their old address.

Feeling particularly proactive in my research, I decided to rifle through a friend’s bin (a glamorous highlight of my student experience) and see how much information I could ascertain from her rubbish. Worryingly, I came across an old debit card that hadn’t been thrown out, a photocopy of a passport and an invoice from play.com. Needless to say, I confronted my friend to find out why she had been so careless. An old debit card, with enough other information, can be used to obtain a new card or at least change details on the account. As and when your card expires, it is important that you cut up the old one. The photocopy of the passport was part of a graduate application, which made me realise just how much information my friends and I had been willingly giving to any company that showed a remote interest in us. Your passport obviously contains a lot of private information, including your place of birth, which again can be used against you. Finally, we seem to have parcels arriving on a daily basis: books, CD’s, video games, clothes, all of which come with invoices that have personal information and often even some details about the payment method. It appears that students make it relatively easy for people to acquire a lot of very personal information.

I spoke to Ryan, a Nottingham student who unfortunately experienced identity theft first-hand. Ryan received a notification from his bank, demanding payment on a credit card he wasn’t even aware he had. After visiting his bank, it was discovered that somebody else had signed up for a credit card in his name and had run up a big balance on it. Ryan said, “I was mortified when I realised what had happened. I was gutted. I suddenly owed a lot of money that I didn’t have, and had no idea how it had happened.”

One study suggests that in 50% of identity theft cases, victim’s details were most likely to be used to obtain credit cards. In these instances, it can take quite a while for people to realise that debt is being run up in their name. Ryan continued, “It turned out that this person had been using the credit card for over a month. It wasn’t until I received a statement that I even realised a credit card had even been set up.”

Interestingly, an American study indicates that it takes 18 to 24 year olds twice as long to find out that they have been the victims of identity fraud. Ryan explained that it was difficult to prove he hadn’t set up the credit card, but once the bank were convinced he had been a victim of identity theft, they tried to help as much as possible. He concluded, “It was such a stressful thing to go through, and there was so little help available to me. I never even worried about identity theft before now, but now I realise just how easy it is to get caught out.”

According to Crimestoppers, “Identity theft can be an upsetting experience for the victim. It can be months before the fraudster’s actions are discovered and it can take several months more to sort out the problems created as a result.” Ryan’s experience highlights just how important it is for students to be very careful about their personal information. Think twice about the privacy of social networking sites, be vigilant when you bank online (especially if you are using shared computers), and make sure you don’t throw confidential personal information in the bin without destroying it first.

If you are concerned about identity theft, more information and help can be found at www.stopidfraud.co.uk

Samantha Owen


Leave a Reply