Protect yourself against identity theft

Identity theft and fraud occur when someone  obtains and uses another person’s personal data for economic gain. Sometimes, years can go by before a victim discovers the crime. 

“People are out there now stealing other people’s identities and trying to take over their bank accounts, trying to set up loans or credit facilities or, in some cases, skimming people’s credit or debit cards and creating new ones,” says Paul McGrath, director of security, Canadian Bankers Association. 

In 2001, Canadians – the highest users of debit cards in the world – made 1.3 billion automated banking machine transactions at more than 16,000 machines. And in 2002, Canadians possessed more than 49 million Visa and MasterCard credit cards. It is estimated that between September 2001 and August 2002, Ontarians alone lost in excess of $4.5 million due to identity theft. 

“Credit bureaus are receiving thousands of requests each month asking for assistance because someone has used their identity or because they suspect something is wrong,” says McGrath.

Hardship not restricted to money<b /Moreover, the trauma caused by identity theft, especially among seniors, is not restricted to financial hardship. 

“It is not uncommon for identity theft victims to shut down emotionally and withdraw from family, friends and co-workers,” writes Linda Foley, director of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center.

Jay Rosenblatt, a lawyer with the Hamilton, Ont.-based law firm of SimpsonWigle, advises clients on how to prevent and respond to identity theft. He has seen the scars among his clients. “The financial and emotional losses can last for years,” says Rosenblatt.
Legislative reform is necessary to ensure that possession and use of stolen identity, in whatever form, is heavily penalized,” says Judy Cutler of CARP, Canada’s Association for the Fifty-Plus.  

Currently, identity theft in Canada is punishable under the Criminal Code. This section stipulates that anyone who impersonates another, living or dead, with intent to gain advantage is liable to 10 years imprisonment.

According to McGrath, Canadian legislation doesn’t prevent identity theft itself. Normally, law enforcement officials can step in only when a crime is attempted or committed.

How to protect yourself
• Be cautious about exposing personal identification numbers (PINs) when using debit cards.
• Avoid leaving your purse or wallet in a vehicle. This is a major source for identity theft.
• Monitor your mail to make sure credit card and bank statements arrive each month. If an important piece of mail does not arrive, call that institution or call the post office to see whether a change of address has been requested.
• Monitor your bank accounts on a regular basis to make sure everything is in order. If unauthorized withdrawals are made, call your bank right away. In cases of proven fraud, CBA members will compensate customers. 
• Contact the credit bureau occasionally to ensure that nobody has applied for credit in your name.
• Unilaterally lower the daily cash withdrawal and retail purchase limits on your debit cards.
• Close your Internet browser after visiting a questionable website before proceeding to online banking and clear your cache after banking.