Safeguard your identity – and secure your access to credit
The incidence of identity theft continues to grow globally. And increased awareness and efforts to fight it don't seem to be doing much to deter those cunning cybercriminals. It's one of the easiest, lowest-risk crimes to commit — but it's far from victimless. Here's how to protect yourself, and your credit profile.
In the past, identity theft usually meant that someone got hold of your credit cards, maxed them out and then threw them away. But, back then (as now), it was relatively easy for the legitimate accountholder to prove that they weren't responsible for the fraudulent spending spree, and to get it reversed, so that they could avoid any black marks on their credit record.
But the fraudulent felons have become far more sophisticated over the years, and they're using stolen ID info to sign cell phone contracts, buy cars on credit, and even secure home loans. They're also able to delay detection for long periods while the unpaid bills keep mounting.
These villains wreak major havoc with their victims' credit records — and their lives! — because the victims could be blocked from being approved for any sort of account, car finance or home loan for months or even years, while they battle to repair the damage.
The latest figures from the SA Fraud Prevention Association recorded about 66 000 cases of fraud in South Africa over the past 10 years, and 7 000 of those cases were facilitated by identity theft. The organisation also recently stated that the scale of identity theft is on the rise as more and more consumer transactions are performed electronically.
And home loan consultants are also seeing it more frequently as they check clients' credit records while helping them apply for home loans. So, consumers really do need to be more aware of the risks and they need to become much more vigilant.
The most important first steps are to guard your ID number and to monitor your own credit reports regularly, so that you can react quickly if a lender or credit provider checks your credit history for some sudden reason. Because this could indicate that someone is applying for credit in your name!
Here are some recommendations from the Banking Association of South Africa and other industry experts:
- Never disclose personal information over the internet or phone, unless you know exactly who you're sharing your info with and what it will be used for.
- Make sure all your electronic devices and online accounts are password-protected — and use a different and difficult password for each one. Do not base your passwords on your name or birthday, as these are all too easy for cyber thieves to crack. Update your passwords and pin numbers regularly.
- Be careful when you enter competitions or answer surveys, because these could be scams to source your information. 'Getting to know you' emails are another trick perpetrators use to harvest personal info.
- Make sure your computer and cell phone have powerful anti-virus protection to block any attempt to get your bank login details or any other personal information via keystroke malware.
- Carefully consider the information you disclose electronically. This includes personal profile information on your business website, social networks, chat rooms, and other online media.
- Don't carry all your identification documentation (ID document, passport and driver's licence) with you, unless it's absolutely essential. Generally, you only need one document to do your daily transactions — the rest should be locked away securely.
- Ensure your filing is always secure. Documents can be stolen or copied if left in your car or office.
- Report the loss of any credit card, debit card, store card or garage card as soon as you realise it's missing.
- Shred all old bank and credit statements and 'junk mail' credit or card offers before trashing them, preferably with a nifty crosscut shredder. A pair of scissors will also do.
- Have your name removed from the marketing list of any company that sends you pre-approved credit offers.
- Always make sure you formally cancel or close any unused credit card accounts, store accounts, or paid-off loan accounts.
- Delete all personal info and format the hard drive of electronic devices like cell phones, tablets, laptops or PCs before you sell or dispose of them.
- Make sure that any personal info you give a company is subject to a confidentiality clause, and cannot be sold or used for anything other than the specified purpose.
- After applying for a loan, credit card, rental or any other transaction that requires a credit report, request that your ID number on the application be truncated or obliterated, and that the report be shredded before your eyes or returned to you once a decision has been made. A lender or rental manager only needs to retain your name and credit score to reach a decision.
- Photocopy your ID book, both sides of your driver's license, your passport, and all your credit cards, and file away the copies so you have all the account numbers, expiration dates and phone numbers if your wallet or bag is stolen. It's a good idea to get those copies certified at your local police station.
And if you suspect you're a cybercrime victim, you should immediately report this to the police and get a case number, and you should notify the bank or government department which issued you with the document that it has been lost or stolen. You can also contact SAFPS on 0860 101 248 for help and support.
Remember, a little cybercrime-prevention savvy could save you so much suffering down the line, when the real you wants to apply for that home loan.