What is identity theft?
Identity theft is when somebody steals your personal information – for example your name, date of birth and address - for their own financial gain. This information may be used to open bank accounts, steal your credit card details and commit other crimes like money laundering and fraud.
Regardless of whether they use the information to access your bank and credit card statements, superannuation records, passport, driver’s licence or tax file number, it’s all classed as identity theft. That’s why it’s important to know how to spot suspicious activity early and where to report identity theft in Australia.
How can your identity be stolen?
As security and technology has become more sophisticated, so has identity fraud ‘in Australia. Here are some of the ways your identity can be stolen:
- Phishing. This is when a scammer sends you a letter, email, text message or contacts you through social media to 'phish' for information. They might call you as well, pretending to be your bank, and attempt to get your personal information from you. For example, scammers commonly contact people pretending that their credit card has been cancelled due to suspicious activity. They then ask you to divulge your credit card information to confirm your identity. A good rule of thumb - never give anyone your personal information over the phone or via text message if they have contacted you out of the blue.
- Online scams. Making sure your computer is free of viruses can help prevent malicious software and hackers stealing your personal information. But that’s not the only way scammers may access your information online. Identity thieves like to use the temptation of prize winnings to trick people into giving them their credit card information. Scammers also sometimes create fake shopping websites and job advertisements in the hope of gaining your personal information.
- Social media. Because you give away so much personal information on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, it’s really easy for scammers to get access to personal information including your date of birth, where you live and where you work. By keeping this information private, you decrease your chances of identity theft.
- Skimming debit or credit card numbers. This is when scammers use a data storage device at an ATM or point of sale to ‘skim’ the information from the magnetic strip on your credit or debit card. It can often be hard to spot, but generally, it is more common in areas with ATMs where there aren’t many people.
- Rubbish sifting. It’s never a good idea to simply throw away old bank statements and bills with your personal information on them. That’s because thieves can go through your rubbish and steal the information.
- Data breaches. You might not have personally been affected, but it’s likely that you’ve heard about data breaches happening in the news. The security of your data is important, so be sure to take note of the data policies and security measures used by the websites you share your information with. Never use the same password across multiple websites and take care to only enter your details on secure websites that you trust.
Warning signs that you’ve been targeted
So how can you tell if you’re a victim of identity theft? Here are some of the clues that you’ve been targeted:
- You stop receiving your bills or other mail.
- There are withdrawals from your bank account that you or anyone you know didn’t make.
- You can’t get a credit card or loan because of a bad credit rating you shouldn’t have.
- You notice unfamiliar charges on your credit card.
- You start receiving bills or calls from loan agencies you know nothing about.
- Debt collectors call you about debts that aren’t yours.
- You receive medical bills for services you don't use.
How can identity theft impact your credit report?
As well as potentially losing a lot of your hard-earned cash, identity theft can seriously affect your credit rating in Australia. That’s because an identity thief can quickly max out any credit cards you have. They can also apply for credit cards, loans and take out subscriptions without ever intending to pay them back. While you’re not at fault, this will be noted in your credit file which is likely to affect your ability to obtain credit down the line. Your credit report contains your credit history and includes information such as::
- Information about existing and previous credit accounts or loans you have held.
- Defaulted payments that have lasted longer than 60 days and exceed $150.
- Any applications you've made in the last five years.
- Serious credit infringement listings i.e. where a credit provider believes you have no intention of paying the loan back.
Tips for protecting yourself from identity theft
There are numerous ways your identity can be stolen so knowing how to protect yourself from identity theft is crucial. Here’s what to do in case of identity theft:
- Regularly check your bank statements. Unusual or unfamiliar transactions could be a sign of identity theft. To stay safe, contact the organisation where you spotted the suspicious activity as soon as possible. They can help by cancelling or freezing your account.
- Do not give your personal details to people you don't know. If you receive a call, message or email from someone you don’t know who claims to be from your bank or another organisation, don't give them your details. You might feel a little awkward saying no to them but it’s better to be safe than sorry. To put your mind at rest, call the organisation yourself to see if it really was them contacting you. The same rules apply for any online competitions where you’re required to enter your personal information.
- Review your credit report. Get your credit report from a reliable credit reporting agency. This is a great way to ensure that nobody is ruining your credit rating by running up huge bills with your personal information.
- Dispose of your personal information wisely. Cut up or shred your bank statements and bills, including old credit cards, and be sure to collect your mail regularly. It’s also a good idea to stay up-to-date with your mailing address; don’t let mail from your bank go to an old address.
Stay safe online
- Passwords. Ensure your passwords are hard to guess. Don’t use the same password for everything or you risk giving thieves access to all your accounts at once.
- Social media. Set your privacy settings to 'friends only', avoid giving out your home address and date of birth, and don't accept friend requests from people you don't know.
- Avoid clicking on suspicious email links. It’s always best to search for the website yourself. It’s really common for links in emails to contain viruses or scams.
- Avoid public Wi-Fi connections. Don’t log in to your bank account from public computers or attempt to access personal information on a public Wi-Fi connection. They’re more likely to be hacked.
- Install anti-virus software. Anti-virus software is great because it automatically flags and stops suspicious activity on your laptop or computer.
What to do if you’re a victim of identity theft
Identity fraud can happen to anyone, so it’s important to know what to do if you notice something suspicious has occurred.
- Let your bank know as soon as possible. They will usually cancel any credit cards and accounts where suspicious activity has occurred.
- Another good preventative measure is to change your password. If that’s what the thief has access to, it’ll quickly prevent them from stealing anymore from you.
- Obtain a copy of your credit report. This is so you can let credit agencies know that you were a victim of identity theft. They’ll be able to put a note on your file which will ensure they don’t authorise any new accounts. It will also help them repair your credit rating.
- Report it to the police and file a fraud report. This will allow investigations to get underway and find out exactly what happened. To avoid a bad credit rating, you should also ask for a police report which you can then provide to financial institutions.
- Apply for a Commonwealth Victims' Certificate. The Commonwealth Victims' Certificate is one of the many forms of identity theft protection in Australia. If identity theft has affected your personal life or business, a Victims' Certificate can help show that you were the unfortunate victim of identity fraud.