A recent survey by cyber security company McAfee found that only one in three Singaporeans ranked protecting their identity as their top cyber security priority. In today’s age of technology, people have become all the more vulnerable to cybercrimes, with identity theft being especially prevalent. Anyone can be a victim of identity theft, yet so few understand the severity of identity theft until they experience it themselves.
In this article, we give you an overview of what constitutes identity theft and you how you can protect yourself from it, as well as what you can do as a victim.
What is identity theft?
Identity theft is the crime of obtaining the personal or financial information of someone else, such as one’s NRIC number or bank account information, to assume that person’s identity in order to commit fraud or other criminal acts.
In order to determine if you are a victim of identity theft, here are some warning signs that you should look out for:
- Withdrawals from your bank account not made by you
- Statements for an unknown credit card account being sent to you in your name
- Unexplained entries in your credit statement
- Unexplained denial of an application for credit
- Collection notices for debts you do not have knowledge of
- You do not receive bills or other important mail containing sensitive information despite requesting for them to be sent to your address
- Your insurance company charges you a higher rate due to a pre-existing condition you do not have knowledge of
- Your electronically-filed tax return is rejected
- You receive a tax refund you did not request for
- You are notified of a data breach at a company that stores your personal information (For example, a bank or hospital)
How does identity theft happen?
Identity theft can happen in a variety of ways, and can be broadly divided into two categories– real-life identity theft and digital identity theft. Real-life identity theft refers to situations where identity thieves obtain personal information through physical means:
Here are a few common ways for one’s identity to be stolen.
- Stealing mail or personal items: Through mail, such as bank statements, and personal items such as laptops or wallets, identity thieves have easy access to your personal information.
- Dumpster diving: Identity thieves can steal your information from paperwork that hasn’t been properly disposed of. This can be done through digging through your trash or the company’s dumpster to find personal information.
- Shoulder surfing: Identify thieves will look over your shoulder when you make transactions, such as at the ATM. They could also use devices like cell phones to record you when you key in personal information.
- Impersonating authority: This occurs when someone contacts you pretending to be a legitimate company, such as a bank, your employer, or even a fake lottery, asking for your bank account information and/or other personal information.
On the other hand, digital identity theft occurs when technology is used to to obtain your personal information. With the ubiquitous nature of technology and social media, it has become much easier for one’s identity to be stolen without them being aware until it is too late.
- Social network websites: Through perusal of one’s information which can be found on social networking accounts on various platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., identity thieves can obtain a person’s name, date of birth, and address.
- Hacking: An unsecured computer or public Wi-Fi network puts you at risk of having your information obtained by a hacker. For example, if you are shopping online using an unsecured public Wi-Fi network, you could potentially give hackers access to your passwords and financial data. Further, hackers can also obtain information by hacking the computer systems of organisations to get large quantities of information at once.
What can identity thieves do with your personal information?
With your NRIC number, passwords, date of birth, and bank information, an identity thief has the power to completely alter life as you know it. The various types of identity theft are explored in this section.
- Financial Identity Theft
This occurs when the thief uses your personal data for financial gain. This includes scenarios where the thief opens multiple lines of credit in your name, often accumulating debt and tarnishing your credit scores.
- Medical Identity Theft
This occurs when your personal information is used to obtain medical services, treatments or prescription drugs. If incorrect information is stored in the victim’s medical records, this can have disastrous consequences on their physical health.
Further, this can also occur where the thief uses the victim’s health insurance information to receive reimbursements on health care services. This may result in the victim having to pay a higher premium due to a pre-existing medical condition on the victim’s record that he does not have.
Considering that healthcare data cannot be as changed or cancelled like bank accounts or one’s NRIC, such a form of identity theft has become increasing popular for thieves.
- Tax Identity Theft
This occurs when someone uses your personal information to file a false tax return and claims your refund. Alternatively, under employment-related tax identity theft, someone can use your personal information to earn wages, which are then reported as your income, resulting in you having to pay taxes based on the reported income.
- Criminal Identity Theft
This occurs when someone who is arrested presents himself as another person, by using that person’s personal information. This can lead to victims getting fined, or arrested. Further, the victim may have a criminal record, which may affect his ability to get a job or obtain financing for property purchases.
What should you do when your identity is stolen?
Victims should close fraudulently used accounts as soon as possible, and report the case of identity theft to the police. The perpetrator may then be charged for cheating by personation under Section 416 of the Penal Code. This Section covers crimes where a person cheats by pretending to be another person, rather than who he really is. However, it is often difficult to identify the perpetrator of identity theft. This is especially so for digital identity theft which can be committed across geographic boundaries.
As this is a criminal matter, prosecution is done by the Public Prosecutor. However, it may be useful to ask a lawyer what important and/or vulnerable data you or your organisation has. Then, measures can be taken to ensure this data is protected.
How do you protect yourself from identity theft?
While no one can be 100% safe from identity theft, steps can be taken to reduce your risk. Here are some tips to protect yourself from identity theft.
- Shred important documents, such as bills and credit card statements, before disposing them
- Limit the personal data you share on social media platforms, and never give out personal information on the phone or over email until you have verified the credentials of the person asking
- Pay attention to your monthly statements and credit reports for irregularities
- Do not log in to banking sites or purchase items over an unsecured wireless connection. All online financial transaction should only be performed on secure networks.
- Password-protect your phone and computer with strong passwords
- Update your virus protection software regularly
- Do not download files from strangers or click hyperlinks from people you don’t know, as this can expose your system to a virus
Following advancements in technology, identity theft has not only become more common, thieves have also become more sophisticated, signaling greater danger in this area. While there is no way to completely prevent identity theft, it is the responsibility of every individual and business to stay vigilant, and take the necessary precautions to lower the risk of identity theft.
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.