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October 5, 2012 6:42 pm

Britons at most risk of identity fraud

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Consumers in Britain are at more risk of falling victim to identity fraud than any other country in Europe, according to new research.

Identity theft has affected a quarter of the UK’s population, while three-quarters have been exposed to some kind of related scam, says research group Fellowes, which commissioned the data to mark the start of National ID Fraud Prevention Month. This compares to an average of 17 per cent of individuals across other countries in Europe.

Identity theft – where criminals use personal information to impersonate someone in order to take out credit or purchase goods – now accounts for 50 per cent of all fraud crime in the UK.

“Stealing your personal information is where most fraud begins,” said Neil Munroe, chair of the Identity Fraud Communications Awareness Group. “With a stolen ID a fraudster can effectively become you – taking money, buying property, setting up bank and phone accounts all in your name.”

He said one of the main problems in the UK is that people use multiple computers for online shopping and socialising with friends, which can leave us open to risk from ID fraud. A third of respondents to a new Equifax survey said they do not bother to log out of social networks or internet banking websites accessed via their mobile phones.

“A stolen phone can provide all the passwords, email addresses, telephone numbers and personal information criminals need to hack into accounts and rack up huge debts in the victims name,” adds Munroe.

Having your identity stolen can cause havoc with your life and it can take months or even years to get finances on track because of the damage done to personal credit ratings.

Jeremy Edwards, a 41-year-old actor who starred in BBC’s Holby City drama and lives in Belsize Park, north London, is one of millions of people to be hit by fraudsters every year. He only found out he had been the victim of identity theft when he tried to remortgage and was turned down because he had a bad credit rating.

The scale of identity theft across Europe
Country Victims of identity fraud % of population Average loss per person £
UK 24 1,076
Spain 18 4,494
Russia 20 5,729
Poland 17 1,162
Italy 14 13,180
Germany 15 28,666
France 14 1,435
 Source: Fellowes; Dynamic Markets

“This wasn’t the first time I had been a victim of fraud – a few years ago I was caught out by a fake cash machine, which made a print of my card and used the Pin to gain access to my funds,” he said.

“Then, in another scam, someone set up a Facebook account in my name and used it to collect personal information about me. But it was the third time I was caught out that caused me the most amount of hassle.”

The fraudster used one of Edwards’ old utility bills to set up a mobile phone contract using his name. The unpaid bills then went to his old address, so Edwards didn’t realise there was a problem with his credit rating for months – until he applied for a mortgage.

“I always thought I was pretty careful, but I obviously wasn’t careful enough. I managed to clear my credit rating but by that time it was too late to get the low interest rates that had previously been on offer from the mortgage lender,” he said. “I now shred all my personal bills once I no longer need them and am very careful not to give out my details to anyone.”

The problem for many Britons is that it takes on average seven months before they realise they have had their identity used by someone else, another three months to resolve the situation and in some instances these two phases could take several years.

FT Money Show podcast

Listen to Lucy Warwick-Ching on the FT Money Show podcast about how to protect yourself from Identity fraud

In Belgium and Italy victims are far quicker at identifying unusual activity on their financial accounts, taking on average 4.8 months and 5.6 months respectively. It takes victims in Poland more than a year to recognise that they have suffered from identity fraud.

James Jones, head of consumer affairs at Experian said criminals are innovative and come up with smart new ways to trick people into giving them their personal information all the time.

He said individuals can keep themselves safe against fraud, with some simple security steps such as keeping personal documents locked away at home – burglars increasingly search for these documents rather than televisions or jewellery. Also, he says, consumers should avoid posting personal information on social network websites which could be used by fraudsters to set up credit in a victim’s name. You should also get your credit file checked regularly for suspicious behaviour, he added.

Which? the consumer body, says that if you think you may have been are a victim of fraud, contact your card company or bank as soon as possible and call the police to obtain a crime number. Make a note of all phone calls – the time, date and who you spoke to – and keep all correspondence.

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