Mara Gulens
April 19

Card-carrying crooks: How to protect yourself against identity theft

It began with a bill for $3,500 from Wells Fargo Financial, a company Dawn Jervis had never dealt with. "When I called, the representative said the company had been trying to contact me, but it had a bogus [phone] number," says Jervis. It also had the wrong last name - someone had obtained credit using Jervis's married name, which she does not use.

Concerned, the 32-year-old mother of three in Brampton, Ont., called a credit bureau and discovered other accounts had been opened by someone using her personal information. There were two laptops from MDG Computers, $2,000 in expenses at Staples Business Depot and a $2,500 shopping spree at Future Shop. All told, Jervis owed $7,000.

When she started calling around, Jervis was shocked to discover that no one believed her. "It was one thing after another," she says, "trying to prove to these people that I didn't make these purchases, and that I did not give out my information to get new credit." A month later, an overwhelmed Jervis was still trying to resolve the situation, and the police were still investigating.

"As long as you've got good credit, you can be a victim of identity theft," says Barry Elliott, a detective with the Ontario Provincial Police and creator and co-ordinator of PhoneBusters, a program designed to prevent this type of fraud. In 2002, Canadian individuals and businesses lost an estimated $2.5 billion to identity theft. Last year, PhoneBusters alone reported 11,434 victims with total losses of $19 million.

Michael Geist, a law professor specializing in Internet and privacy issues at the University of Ottawa, says that while identity theft has been around much longer than e-mail and debit cards, it's now a growing online phenomenon. "Canadians now collect and house so much personal information electronically that we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people at risk if that information is compromised." Geist is concerned some companies are not careful enough about protecting their clients. For example, in November 2004, CIBC customers were shocked to hear the bank had been inadvertently faxing personal financial information to a scrapyard in West Virginia - for more than three years.

Geist admits it's impossible for individuals to prevent this sort of breach, nor can we simply stop using our debit cards or doing online business transactions. However, there are ways to protect yourself from identity theft. Here's where to begin.

1. Learn how the scams work

Chances are you've heard about this one: you receive an e-mail that purports to be from your bank or an online merchant such as eBay, complete with the corporate logo. The message asks you to verify your information by clicking a link and entering your name and account details. Problem is, the website you're directed to is a fake that's used to steal banking information with a technique called "phishing." Similar telephone scams have been around for years. In both cases, the information may be used for credit-card fraud or to write bad cheques on your account.

No legitimate institution asks customers for confidential information by e-mail, and most banks reassure their customers of this policy on their websites. Yet a recent AOL Canada survey found that 12 per cent of respondents admitted to clicking on links in e-mails to confirm account information. Elliott says the only way to make phishing ineffective is to spread awareness and encourage people to delete these messages without clicking the links.

2. Protect your personal computer

Spam and viruses are bad enough, but neither can compare with the potential harm caused by "spyware" - that is, software that collects and transmits information from your computer without your knowledge. Spyware shouldn't be confused with the legal (albeit annoying and sometimes damaging) "adware" that installs itself along with free software such as Kazaa, the popular music-sharing program. Adware collects info about your surfing habits and targets you with pop-up ads, but spyware goes much further. It keeps a log of every keystroke and can be used to capture passwords, pins and other personal info.

Antivirus software won't necessarily prevent spyware from finding its way onto your system, so make sure you're also using a firewall to prevent people from accessing your computer via the Internet. A firewall is included with Windows xp, but it may not be turned on or up to date - check the Microsoft website for details. (If you use a Mac, you get off lucky, as most spyware targets Windows users.) If you do think your computer is infected or at risk, consider purchasing a program such as Norton Internet Security or McAfee Antispyware.

In addition, never use a public computer - at a library or Internet café, for example - to access your bank or credit-card accounts, since it's possible your personal information could be accessed by someone using the terminal after you.

3. Monitor your credit

While you can't entirely prevent identity theft, you can spot danger signs quickly if you keep an eye on your credit file. Canada's largest credit bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion, will send you your file on request, and it's a good idea to ask for it at least once a year. Elliott also suggests using a credit-reporting agency monitoring service such as Identity Guard, which checks your credit report daily and notifies you of suspicious activity. These services are costly, however, and may not prevent fraud in the first place. "But taking these precautions should greatly reduce your risk," says Elliott.

At the very least, Elliott says, look over your bank statements and credit-card bills carefully to ensure you made all the transactions listed. "Go online once a week and check that there are no problems." In most cases, your bank or credit-card issuer will be on the hook for withdrawals you didn't authorize, but as Jervis discovered, resolving the problem isn't always so straightforward.

4. Don't neglect snail mail

Elliott advises people not to forget about the daily mail. If you've received pre-approval for a credit card you don't want, shred the application (which may include personal information) so it can't be plucked out of the blue box. Try to keep track of when your credit-card bills and bank statements usually arrive, and if one is late, call to ask why.

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