Safety First: Avoiding Identity Theft

Identity Theft

Identity theft – or perhaps more accurately, identity fraud – occurs when someone uses your personal information, your Social Insurance Number (SIN) or birth date, for example, to pose as you and then apply for credit cards and loans, open bank accounts to write bad cheques and to get new government documents such as driver’s licences and SIN cards.

Another newer type of identity theft is medical identity theft, where the crook impersonates someone else to claim their medical benefits.

Identity thieves steal personal information in many different ways. Dishonest employees sometimes obtain personal data from organizations where personal or financial information is stored. Hackers have also tapped into databases to steal personal information. In other cases, fraud artists steal wallets or take documents from mailboxes, dumpsters or recycling bins. Sometimes they impersonate someone to trick organizations into providing that person’s information. They can also illicitly gather information about victims online or trick people into revealing personal information with spam e-mails designed to look like they come from legitimate organizations such as banks.

A very serious e-mail scam used by identity thieves is known as "phishing". A fraud artist sends an email that appears to come from a reputable company or business. The message indicates a problem with the recipient’s account, and asks for account numbers and other personal information to "correct" the file. This information is then used to commit fraud. People are beginning to catch on to "phishing" scams, so some crooks are now sending emails asking people to call a telephone number – set up with a message system that sounds legitimate. This relatively new tactic is called "voice phishing" or "vishing."

Every year, thousands of people are victims of identity theft.

While recent developments in telecommunications and computer processing make it easier for companies and consumers to reach each other, they can also scatter your personal information more widely, making life easier for criminals.

How to fight identity theft

  • Minimize the risk. Be careful about sharing personal information or letting it circulate freely.
  • When you are asked to provide personal information, ask how it will be used, why it is needed, who will be sharing it and how it will be safeguarded.
  • Give out no more than the minimum, and carry the least possible with you.
  • Be particularly careful about your SIN; it is an important key to your identity, especially in credit reports and computer databases.
  • Don't give your credit card number on the telephone, by electronic mail, or to a voice mailbox, unless you know the person with whom you're communicating or you initiated the communication yourself, and you know that the communication channel is secure.
  • Take advantage of technologies that enhance your security and privacy when you use the Internet, such as digital signatures, data encryption, and "anonymizing" services.
  • Pay attention to your billing cycle. If credit card or utility bills fail to arrive, contact the companies to ensure that they have not been illicitly redirected.
  • Notify creditors immediately if your identification or credit cards are lost or stolen.
  • Access your credit report from a credit reporting agency once a year to ensure it's accurate and doesn't include debts or activities you haven't authorized or incurred.
  • Ask that your accounts require passwords before any inquiries or changes can be made, whenever possible.
  • Choose difficult passwords — not your mother's maiden name. Memorise them, change them often. Don't write them down and leave them in your wallet, or some equally obvious place.
  • Key in personal identification numbers privately when you use direct purchase terminals, bank machines, or telephones.
  • Find out if your cardholder agreement offers protection from credit card fraud; you may be able to avoid taking on the identity thief's debts.
  • Be careful what you throw out. Burn or shred personal financial information such as statements, credit card offers, receipts, insurance forms, etc. Insist that businesses you deal with do the same.

What are some of the signs my identity might have been stolen?

  • Your bills and account statements don’t arrive when they are supposed to.
  • Collection agencies or creditors call about accounts you don’t have or bills that you have already paid.
  • A credit-granting institution informs you that you have been approved or denied credit you have not applied for.
  • Your banking statements show withdrawals or other transactions you didn’t make.
  • You are denied credit even though you believe you have a good credit record.
  • Your credit report shows debts that are not yours.

Are you a victim of identity theft?

  • Report the crime to the police immediately. Ask for a copy of the police report so that you can provide proof of the theft to the organizations that you will have to contact later.
  • Take steps to undo the damage. Avoid "credit-repair" companies: there is usually nothing they can do, and some have been known to propose a solution — establishing credit under a new identity — that is itself fraudulent.
  • Document the steps you take and the expenses you incur to clear your name and re-establish your credit.
  • Cancel your credit cards and get new ones issued. Ask the creditors about accounts tampered with or opened fraudulently in your name.
  • Have your credit report annotated to reflect the identity theft. Do a follow-up check three months after to ensure that someone has not tried to use your identity again.
  • Close your bank accounts and open new ones. Insist on password-only access to them.
  • Get new bank machine and telephone calling cards, with new passwords or personal identification numbers.
  • In the case of passport theft, advise the Passport Office.
  • Contact Canada Post if you suspect that someone is diverting your mail.
  • Advise your telephone, cable, and utilities that someone using your name could try to open new accounts fraudulently.
  • Get a new driver's licence
  • Contact PhoneBusters, a police organization that collects information about identity theft and offers advice to victims. 1-888-495-8501;