Victim of email scam: is my ID at risk?

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Email scams are on the rise. Last year there were almost 450,000 'phishing' attacks around the world - a third of which took place in the UK. It was a big rise from last year, and almost double the number of attacks in 2010. We are more at risk than ever from online fraudsters, and while we may be more cautious too, there's always the chance that a particularly well-targeted attack catches us out.

So how dangerous are these attacks, how can we protect ourselves, and what can we do if we have fallen victim to these fraudsters?

The attacks

Phishing comes in various guises, but at their heart they are simply emails sent to people at random with the aim of getting them to hand over personal information - from your name, date of birth, and the town in which you were born, to account details.

They may pretend that the email comes from your bank, asking you to verify information or to change your security information after an upgrade. They may threaten to close your account or suspend payments if you don't respond, or they may claim this is part of their usual security checks.

They might claim to be from the government, or the taxman, promising rebates or more tax credits. Or they may claim to come from someone you have never met before who has a sob story or a business proposition.

Often they will look genuine. They may include logos you recognise, they may even copy the usual style of email and font that the organisation itself uses. They might link to a website which is incredibly similar to the official website - with a very similar address.

Whatever these emails claim to be, they are vicious attacks from criminal gangs. They have the sole aim of extracting information about you. They don't have to steal your bank account details in order for you to become a victim, a simple request for personal details can put you at risk.

Experts at Experian warn that it's surprisingly easy to use the information you have given away in order to fill in the gaps and submit a convincing application for a loan or credit card in your name. Once they have this, they can assume your identity, and run up hundreds or even thousands of pounds worth of debt in your name.

Protect yourself

If you receive any emails asking for personal details, do not respond. You should assume every email of this type is a hoax unless proved otherwise.

If something about the email rings true, then don't click on any links or respond directly to the email, contact the institution that the email claims to be from - using the phone number you usually use to contact them rather than one from the email - and check whether it's a scam.

If you are concerned about an email, ideally don't open it at all. If you have opened it, don't click on the email or any links within it, do not open any attachments, and delete the email as soon as possible.

It's also worth getting anti-virus and anti-spyware for your computer because some of these emails include viruses which will either cause you problems, or spy on your keystrokes in order to access passwords and online banking details.

If you have fallen for a scam

If you are concerned that you have handed over any bank account details, contact your bank immediately and inform them. They will be able to take steps to protect your account and will let you know whether you need to report the scam to the authorities.

If you simply handed over personal details, then it's worth getting hold of your credit report from an organisation like Experian and check it carefully for signs of fraud. You can get a free report if you sign up for a trial of the CreditExpert service.

If you spot anything unusual or unfamiliar, call Experian immediately. They have a Victims of Fraud service, which will help you investigate the fraud and put things right. They will show you how to set the record straight, and can add security features to your credit report to thwart fraudsters in future. You should also report the crime to the police.

If there's no sign of fraud, but you are worried that your details might be used in the near future, you can also arrange for CIFAS to put a warning flag on your credit reports.