National Identity Fraud Prevention Week or was it “Identity Theft for Dummies?”

By: Vincent Woodall

National Identity Fraud Prevention Week ran from the 17th-23rd October last year for the first time. There was a great deal of publicity regarding identity fraud as might have been expected but was it perhaps a case of “too much information”?

It is certainly understandable that a great deal of
information was given about how to prevent identity fraud and what to do if you fell victim to it. However, there was also a great deal of information given that would certainly help the criminally-inclined who might otherwise never have thought that this was a way to make some easy money.

Identity theft is growing fast, costing around £1.7 billion and affecting up to 100,000 people each year. Strangely, it's not a crime at the moment although the Government is considering making it one. It only becomes a crime when a stolen identity is actually used to obtain goods and services by deception at which point it becomes known as identity fraud.

Almost 20% of consumers in the USA admit to falling victim to identity theft. Younger adults are most at risk according to Experian-Gallup Personal Credit Index published on the 4th August 2005. Identity theft in the UK is rapidly on the up, with an increase of 165% over the available figures for
2004 according to Credit reference agency Experian.

However, is it any wonder that this particular crime is on the increase, when so much detailed information is given as to how identity thieves go about their task? I am reminded of an article I read in one of the tabloid newspapers only a few months ago, in which a convicted burglar, originally from Eastern Europe, explained how he had learnt valuable tips of the trade from, of all places, a police website.

The same could be said about identity theft but this
information is not confined to police websites. If you were to type in “identity theft” into the Google UK search engine, you would see that this returns some 775,000 results. Now not all of these results are specifically about identity theft. However thousands of these results describe in detail how easily identity thieves go about stealing other people’s identities.

UK credit reference agency Experian, in co-operation with the London Borough of Camden, analysed the contents of the dustbins of 327 domestic homes and 71 companies and organisations to assess the potential for identity fraud (apparently bin raiders in certain parts of London are paid up to £5 a document by would-be identity thieves). Some of the information found included the names, addresses and mobile telephone numbers of well known film and television stars that had been discarded by a film and theatrical agency. Photocopies of passports with passport numbers,
dates of birth and photographs of customers had been thrown out by a travel agent. Full financial details of applicants for courses at an educational establishment had been put into dustbins. Detailed scaled plans of NHS hospitals and other public buildings had been thrown out by an architect.
Full medical records of the patients of a doctor’s surgery had been thrown away. Signed witness statements and sworn affidavits had been discarded by a barrister’s chambers. A PR company had thrown out embargoed press releases and bank account details of its clients. A mortgage broker had discarded numerous completed mortgage applications containing full financial details of its clients.

Apart from the above, one in ten domestic households was found to have discarded a compete combination of credit or debit card number, with expiry date, issue number and signature. Many other assorted articles were also found in this selection of dustbins including mortgage statements, bank account numbers and balances, a cheque book complete with ten cheques, an uncashed cheque, medical information, an MP’s signature, CVs, driving licences and a death
certificate. Jill Stevens, Consumer Relations Director at Experian, commented “….as consumers, we are all still binning far too much personal information which can and is being used by fraudsters to fuel the current boom in ID fraud”.

Only very recently, in February this year, two identity fraudsters got confidential information about comedian Harry Hill, 41, from a bank clerk and used it to set up an internet account in his name. They then siphoned cash from the comedian's genuine Halifax accounts into the bogus one. In one month a series of large sums were transferred out of the online account to various beneficiaries and stolen.
Hill, whose account was in his real name of Dr Matthew Hall, discovered the theft when he visited his Halifax branch in Battersea, South London, to query the transactions.

The stand-up comic was one of five wealthy clients targeted. The unnamed conmen got their confidential details from Sharmane Dillon, 23, a Halifax customer adviser. Dillon claimed the men, who were not caught, threatened her with violence. They sent her the names of chosen victims by text message and she searched the computer database for dates of births and answers to security questions.

Prosecutor Andrew Evans told Harrow crown court that one conman then posed as Hill to alter the bank's records of his address. He said: "It was changed to somewhere in Woolwich. A code was then issued to that address which enabled fraudulent transactions." Almost £500,000 was taken from the customers. About £150,000 was recovered. The bank refunded the rest.

Dillon, who worked in Wembley, admitted passing on customer details but denied plotting fraud. She denied the charge of conspiracy to defraud saying she did not profit from the crime, and only took part because the conmen had threatened to hurt her family and slit her throat if she did not help.

However a jury at Harrow Crown Court found the 23-year-old guilty by a majority verdict . The fraudsters themselves were not caught. Judge Susan Tapping told her: ‘It would be very wrong if I didn't warn you that a custodial sentence is very much on the cards for this offence.’

Four other accounts were targeted in the sting, which netted more than £578,000 in 2004; although all the victims have got their money back. She was released on bail and will be sentenced next month.

Last year another comedian, Ricky Gervais, was also a victim of identity fraud when a picture taken from the cover of a DVD was used in a stolen passport.

So where does this leave you? If you can’t even trust the staff at your bank it doesn’t leave too much hope. MPs recently voted to bring in voluntary ID cards. Presumably criminals will choose to opt out given the choice. But apart from biometric ID cards what can you do to protect your identity?

It has been suggested on a Home Office website that paper shredders also contribute to protecting against identity theft.

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Vincent Woodall is the sales manager for paper shredders main dealer AB Technology (London) Ltd (ABT). Find them at

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