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Ten ways to protect yourself from fraud

2007-11-24 08:00:00

After personal details on millions of UK families went missing from the HM Revenue & Customs department this week, fears of identity theft soared, but every day, and by their own oversights, individuals leave themselves vulnerable to less dramatic and much more common financial frauds.

The child benefit data lost by HMRC includes names, addresses, dates of birth, National Insurance numbers and bank details of some 25 million people.

Chancellor Alistair Darling and banking payments body Apacs are at pains to reassure people there is no evidence the data has fallen into criminal hands, but concerns remain.

Technical analysts Gartner say the type of data lost could be enormously valuable to identity thieves and other criminals, who could, for example, use stolen account numbers to take over bank accounts.

Gartner analyst Avivah Litan says: "The chances of a data loss resulting in identity theft is usually extremely low. However, the media attention this data loss is receiving means criminals are likely to pursue the lost data as vigorously as the authorities."

Apacs contests that even where bank details are available on the lost discs, criminals would need to redirect mail to their address, creating an audit trail and a "hassle factor" that would put many of them off.

Barry Stamp, joint managing director of credit-reference company the Credit Reporting Agency, says the main problem with the HMRC data is that it could provide a gateway to other information. Stamp says: "The lost details give enough personal information that a fraudster could use to illicit any extra pieces of information from you, such as PIN numbers and where you were born, which could allow them to commit more serious frauds."

The HMRC data debacle is stoking the worst fears of identity theft, where someone acquires enough information to pretend to be you – perhaps taking out a mortgage, conducting illegal activities or running up debts, all in your name and sometimes at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds.

Dramatic cases such as that of retired engineer Derek Bond – wrongly arrested in South Africa in 2003 after the man who stole his identity 14 years previously appeared on the FBI's most-wanted list for a multimillion-pound telemarketing scam – unsurprisingly, grabbed the headlines.

However, such sensational cases remain relatively rare and it is the much less elaborate cases of financial fraud to which the greater majority of people are vulnerable.

Jemma Smith of Apacs says: "There's a lot of hype surrounding identity theft and undoubtedly when it does happen it can be an absolute nightmare to unravel. However, fraudsters are looking for the paths of least resistance. They want the least risk, highest returns and the least effort ways to make money – and wholesale identity theft just doesn't tick these three boxes."

Ms Smith says individuals are much more likely to face crimes like fraudulent "card not present" purchases made with your card details when goods are purchased over the phone, online or by mail order – or instances where your card is cloned and then used in countries where you can still authorise payments by signature.

While there are no separate "identity theft" statistics, Apacs says that "lending fraud" – where people take out a mortgage or loan in someone else's name – is estimated to have been between £160m and £180m last year. This compares to total card-fraud losses for 2006 which were far higher, at £428m.

The good news is that under the Banking Code, individuals are protected by financial loss in most cases, and some simple and low-cost measures can dramatically reduce the chances of falling victim in the first place.

To avoid card fraud of all types, Apacs recommends never letting your card out of your sight when making a transaction, discarding your receipts from card transactions, shredding all receipts and documents that contain information relating to your financial affairs and, when using a cash machine, being wary of anyone who might be trying to watch you enter your PIN, and not allowing yourself to be distracted by anyone or anything.

To minimise the chances of someone intercepting an application form and taking out credit in your name, register for free at the Mail Preference Service at www.mpsonline.org.uk, which will put a stop to most of the junk mail you receive.

Also, always ensure all mail is redirected to you when you move home by using Royal Mail's service (www.royalmail.com).

If you are living in fear of a full-scale attempt to steal your identity, then there are a growing number of insurers willing to offer protection.

For example, Sainsbury's Bank offers PrivacyGuard for £6.99 a month, which covers the cost of credit report access, ongoing monitoring of your credit, alerts of any unusual activity and up to £10,000 reimbursement towards expenses you might incur should your identity be stolen.

But experts such as Stamp are cynical of the merits of such policies: " This is another protection racket. I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of insurers started trying to push these products on the back of the Revenue's loss of information, but some of these policies really aren't worth it."

While it is advisable to check your credit report, you might only consider doing so once or twice a year, suggests Apacs. You can do so for a few pounds at www.checkmyfile.com, www.experian.co.uk or www.equifax.co.uk.

1. Never reveal your place of birth to anyone you've just met.

2. Always cover your pin with your hand when you use an ATM.

3. Register with the telephone-, email- and mail-preference services.

4. Check your bank statements regularly.

5. Never throw out statements, or junk-mail loan and credit card applications without ripping them up or, better still, shredding them.

6. Never give out bank details asked for via unsolicited phone calls or emails.

7. Never carry around any more cards than you need. If the credit card you use only once every few months goes missing, when would you notice?

8. Never keep your name and address in your wallet, even keep your driver's licence separate.

9. Never put your home address on your luggage when you travel abroad, put your work address.

10. If you suspect your mail is being stolen, contact the Royal Mail customer enquiry line (0845 774 0740) to check whether a mail redirection order has been made in your name without your knowledge.

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