Identity theft: It can happen to you

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Between 2009 and 2015, identity theft had increased by 200 percent in South Africa according to the South African Fraud Prevention Association. Men aged between 30 and 40 in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal are most likely to be targeted, it says.

“Identity theft can take many forms, but its impact can be devastating. Aside from the loss of cash, the consequences of identity theft can include stalking by sexual predators, damage to one’s hard-won reputation, and the traumatic discovery that one is wrongly suspected of a crime committed by somebody using one’s identity,” says David Loxton, Partner at law firm Dentons SA in Johannesburg. “In addition, there is something profoundly disturbing about the idea that somebody is assuming one’s identity.”

Identity theft occurs when an individual’s identity is used by a third party to gain some sort of unlawful advantage, usually financial. Identity theft can be used to rob the individual’s own accounts or to incur debt for the purchase of items. Medical identity theft is also on the rise. This is when fraudsters seek medical care under the identity of another person.

Worryingly, the theft of children’s identities is becoming more common. These are prized because they present a clean slate for the criminal to exploit.

Loxton says that identity theft requires the criminal to find out pertinent personal details about the target in order to assume his or her identity. Personal details are frequently obtained from banks and other paper records by so-called dumpster divers, or from redundant IT equipment and storage media disposed of carelessly at public dumps. Cell phones are a particular vulnerability as they are increasingly used to store sensitive information or transact, and yet can be easily lost or mislaid. Insecure public WiFi networks can also be exploited by hackers.

“People are incredibly careless about how they use electronic equipment in public. It’s easy for ill-intentioned people to take screenshots of sensitive spreadsheets on a laptop being used on a plane or any public space, and I have heard a job interview being conducted via a mobile phone on the Gautrain, with all sorts of personal and corporate information clearly audible to nearby passengers,” he says. “In addition, of course, using unsecured WiFi public networks also makes one’s device and data vulnerable.”

Phishing scams, aimed at conning people to reveal personal information, are also becoming even more frequent, and also more sophisticated.

Given the escalating risk of identity theft, Loxton suggests some common-sense precautions:

  • Shred or burn documents with sensitive, personal information on them.
    • Use strong passwords for digital devices and files.
    • Make sure that all devices are protected with anti-virus software and firewalls.
    • Use mobile devices wisely in public.
    • Guard against phishing. All digital correspondence, especially when attachments are used, should be treated with suspicion.
    • Don’t divulge personal information too readily—especially on social media. These channels are regularly trawled by criminals.

“Make sure you understand the concept of privacy, and why it is so important in the Information Age. Guard yours jealously,” Loxton concludes.