Even children are at risk of identity theft as unscrupulous criminals assume counterfeit identities to commit fraud and other crimes and even to secure medical services they are not entitled to.
David Loxton, partner at law firm Dentons SA in Johannesburg, said on Tuesday that the incidence of ID theft had recently tripled in South Africa. It was especially worrying, he said, that the theft of children’s identities was becoming more common. “These identities are prized because they present a clean slate for a criminal to exploit.”
Loxton said the consequences of identity theft – which can include stalking by sexual predators, reputational damage and becoming implicated in crime – could be “devastating”.
According to the South African Fraud Prevention Association, identity theft increased by 200 percent in South Africa between 2009 and 2015, with men aged between 30 and 40 living in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal the most likely targets.
Identity theft occurs when an individual’s identity is used by a third party to gain some, usually unlawful, advantage. Identity theft can be used to steal from the victim’s own accounts or to incur debt in their name. Loxton said that medical identity theft, when fraudsters seek medical services under the identity of another person, was also on the rise.
To commit identity theft, a criminal must be in possession of personal information about the target. This was where, Loxton advised, individuals could significantly reduce the risk by taking care.
Personal details are often obtained from bank and other paper records by so-called dumpster divers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but anyone who is throwing complete bank statements and so on into the recycling bin at home or office would seem to have a rather high appetite for risk. Loxton advised that all documents, including sensitive personal information, should be shredded or burned.
Another area of risk was redundant IT equipment and storage media disposed of carelessly at public dumps, with that clunky old brick of a cellphone being particularly vulnerable. Mobile phones are increasingly used to store information or transact and yet can be easily mislaid. Insecure public wifi networks can also be exploited by hackers.
Loxton advised people to use strong passwords for all digital devices and files, and to make sure that all devices are protected with antivirus software and firewalls.
“People are incredibly careless about how they use electronic equipment in public,” said Loxton, advising that people exercise basic common sense to protect themselves.
Don’t, for example, display sensitive spreadsheets on an open laptop while sitting in a public space. It is very easy for a criminal to take a photo of the screen and in a fraction of a second gather a lot of personal or sensitive information. This scenario might sound like a lot of high-level espionage to involve “little ole you”, but remember that criminals are often looking to assume the identities of ordinary folk to commit crime.
Loxton says people should use mobile devices a lot more wisely in public.
“I have heard a job interview being conducted via a mobile phone on the Gautrain, with all sorts of personal and corporate information clearly audible to nearby passengers,” he said.
“In addition, of course, using unsecured wifi public networks also makes one’s device and data vulnerable.”
Risks posed by phishing, where emails purporting to be from reputable or known companies induce people to divulge personal information such as passwords, have been well-documented, but the practice is becoming ever more sophisticated and harder to spot.
Loxton’s advice here is to treat all digital correspondence, especially when attachments are used, as suspicious.
And while Facebook and Co might seem like fun, safe spaces to play with friends and family, Loxton says these channels are regularly trawled by criminals. Even here, he says, “don’t divulge personal information too readily”.
It goes without saying that parents and friends should be especially careful when dealing with information about children.