Take steps to protect yourself as identity fraud soars

Identity fraud has jumped by more than 12% since the beginning of the year, according to new figures from credit reference agency Experian.

Data from its fraud prevention database – National Hunter – shows a significant increase in the number of fraudsters making applications for credit cards, loans, automotive finance and mortgages using other people's identities.Identity fraud is one of Britain's fastest-growing crimes, costing the country around £2 billion a year.

It involves criminals getting hold of your personal information and using it to get credit – which can mean anything from credit cards and loans to mail order shopping – in your name. And the likelihood of a criminal targeting you in this way is increasing every month.

The Experian figures show that, while 11.91 of every 10,000 credit applications made in the first three months of 2009 were fraudulent, this had risen to 13.37 per 10,000 – an increase of 12.3% - by the third quarter of the year. Darryl Bowman of Experian said: "As we get wiser to protecting ourselves from fraud, it's clear that criminals are working even harder to steal our personal details so they can apply for credit. The resulting surge in identity fraud is very worrying."

The first step towards avoiding identity fraud is to raise your personal defences. You should never share sensitive, personal information such as your card pin with others, or give out your personal information over the phone or in response to an unsolicited email. Using different pins and passwords for online accounts also makes it more difficult for the criminals to use your name to steal money.

Other easy ways you can reduce the likelihood of your identity being stolen and used to borrow fraudulently include regularly checking your credit report for signs of fraud – such as new accounts you have not opened.

Avoid throwing away financial statements and offers of loans and credit cards, in case "bin raiders" searching for exactly this type of document target your rubbish. Even documents you consider unimportant, such as old gas, electricity and phone bills, can be used as "proof of address", so these should be shredded rather than binned as well.

Be sure to report any thefts to the police, as well as your bank and card issuers, as this will give them a heads up on any potential fraud planned by the thieves.

And if you move house, use the Royal Mail's Redirection Service to forward your post to your new address for at least a year to keep it out of unscrupulous hands.

How do I spot identity fraud?

The longer the fraudsters can keep an identity scam going, the more credit they can take out in your name.

Prevention is, of course, better than a cure, but one of the main reasons identity theft costs the UK so much is that the average case takes 500 days to be spotted.

As well as checking your credit report, it is therefore vital to keep a close eye on your financial affairs, and to stay up to date with address changes for example.Bowman said: "Missing post, unexpected phone calls and strange emails are signs we look out for and know suggest potentially fraudulent activity. A new catalogue account at a new address could be the stepping stone to much more significant lines of credit and ultimately a much bigger problem for the victim to resolve."

Other warning signs that you may already be a victim of identity theft include receiving bills or invoices for goods that you haven't ordered or letters from solicitors or debt agencies you have no relationship with.
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