Imagine this: Someone has taken your name, your credit card information, and your Social Insurance Number (SIN), and they are pretending to be you. They’re running up steep bills, even committing crimes—and as far as your bank and the authorities are concerned, they are you. This is identity theft. It is one of the fastest growing crimes in Canada, and it can happen to anyone. Here are tips to recognize and guard against identity theft.
If someone uses your personal information to commit a crime
Identity theft happens when someone takes your personal information—such as your name, address, date of birth, SIN, your bank account numbers, credit card information, or online passwords—and uses it to access your finances, make purchases in your name, or commit other crimes. For example, they might:
- take money out of your bank account
- make purchases using your credit card information
- apply for a credit card or a loan in your name
- sign up for a cellphone service in your name
It is a criminal offence to possess someone else’s identification for criminal purposes, or to use it to commit a crime (such as impersonating someone or misusing a credit card).
How identity thieves get the information
“I got a call from my credit card company asking if I had just bought something in New York. I’ve never been to New York. It turns out someone had been using my credit card for weeks, and run up $10,000 in charges. The police think they got my credit card information by pulling an old bill out of my garbage, and then they contacted the credit card company to change my address. I had wondered why I hadn’t received a bill for almost two months.”
– Hazel, Williams Lake
Identity thieves can obtain your personal information in many ways. Some might find a wallet or phone you lost, and take information from it. Some use public sources—online search engines, social media networks, phone books, and public records—to piece together information about you.
Others use more devious ways to get your information.
Some go through garbage or recycling bins for discarded bills or other mail with personal information on it.
Some pose as a credible person (for example, a government official, bank employee, or landlord) to obtain personal or financial information from you or from others you know.
Some use technology to steal your information. For example:
- They pretend to be a reputable company and send fake emails or texts to trick you into providing personal and financial information. This is called phishing.
- They use malware or spyware, which is software used to steal information about you. Clicking on a link in an email or installing free software can trigger the installation of the malicious software without you realizing it.
- They scan old computers, mobile devices, or memory sticks for information that has not been fully deleted.
- They tamper with automated teller machines (ATMs) and point-of-sale debit machines so they can intercept your debit or credit card number and personal identification number (PIN).
- They advertise jobs that don't exist to get you to submit your resume, in order to obtain your information.
Warning signs to watch for
There are many signs that could indicate your personal information is being used by someone else.
- On your bills or bank statements, you don’t recognize some purchases or withdrawals.
- Bills or bank statements arrive late or not at all (they may have been redirected).
- You're alerted by your bank or credit card company about suspicious transactions.
- You start getting bills from companies you know nothing about.
- A company or collection agency contacts you about a debt that isn’t yours.
- You apply for credit and are turned down for no apparent reason.
There are steps you can take to protect yourself
Being the victim of identity theft can be a complicated and frustrating experience.
There is the immediate inconvenience of having to cancel cards and accounts and get replacements.
There can be charges for purchases you didn’t make and services you didn’t order. If these purchases were made with a lost or stolen credit card, you shouldn’t be liable for any losses as long as you report the lost or stolen card immediately.
As well, identity theft can result in a bad credit report, which could make it difficult for you to find employment, rent a place to live, or borrow money. A credit report is a detailed list of your credit and bill-paying history, and other information about you. Your credit report helps businesses, banks and others decide if you are likely to pay your bills on time. There are steps you can take to protect or repair your credit report.
1. Protect your personal information
Never give personal or financial information to anyone who contacts you by phone or online unless you know who they are or can confirm they are legitimate.
Be extra careful about giving out your Social Insurance Number (SIN). It's virtually a key to your identity.
For passwords or PIN numbers, don’t use favourite names or easy-to-guess combinations. For example, don’t use the name of your child or pet as part of a password, or easy-to-guess PIN numbers like “1234”.
2. Handle your documents carefully
Carry only the identification you need. Don’t carry your SIN card, birth certificate, or passport on a regular basis. Store them in a safe place and only carry them when you know you need them.
Tear or shred receipts and copies of papers you no longer need, such as old tax returns, insurance forms, and credit offers you get in the mail.
Don't leave personal information lying around at home, in your vehicle, at the office or on your computer. Don’t leave receipts at an ATM, a gas station, or anywhere else where you have bought something.
When you receive a renewal or replacement for a document that contains identity information (for example, your driver’s licence), return or destroy the old one.
Sign your credit and debit cards as soon as you get them. Cut up expired and unused cards. A card may have expired but the number may still be valid.
3. Be cautious using email
Be extremely wary of emails that seem to come from financial institutions or authorities asking you to provide personal information. If in doubt, look up their contact information, call them, and ask them to verify the request before providing any information.
4. Be cautious online
On social networking sites, don’t post more personal information than necessary. Set your privacy settings as high as possible. Don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know.
Keep in mind that wireless networks in public places such as coffee shops, libraries and airports are not secure. When using a public wireless network, never send personal information or visit sites that require a password (such as online banking).
5. Read your statements
Read your bank and credit card statements. That way you'll know right away if you're being charged for something you didn't authorize.
Report any missing mail or statements right away.