Identity theft

Did you know?

What percentage of Canadians say they’ve been the victim of identity theft?
  • 13%
  • 25%
  • 37%

Imagine this: Someone has taken your name, your credit card information, and your social insurance number, and they're 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’s one of the fastest growing crimes in Canada, and it can happen to anyone. Here's how to recognize and guard against it.

What you should know

How to recognize identity theft

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’s 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

Identity thieves can get 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 methods. 

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 hasn’t 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 harvest your information.

Warning signs to watch for

There are many red flags that someone might be using your personal information. 

  • 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. 

How to contain the damage caused by identity theft

Being the victim of identity theft can be a complicated and frustrating experience.

There’s 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’re likely to pay your bills on time. There are steps you can take to protect or repair your credit report

Prevent problems

Step 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’re legitimate. 

Be extra careful about giving out your social insurance number (SIN). It's virtually a key to your identity. 

Never give out these two pieces of information together: your date of birth and place of birth. With those two, scammers have 98% of what they need to steal 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.”  

Step 2. Handle your documents carefully

Carry only the identification you need. Don’t carry your SIN card, birth certificate, or passport. Store these 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 you’ve 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. Even though a card has expired its number may still be valid.

Step 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 giving out any information.  

Step 4. Be cautious online

On social networking sites, don’t post more personal information than is strictly 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). 

Step 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.

Who can help

If you've been scammed

Step-by-step guidance

If you think you’ve been the victim of a scam, see our guidance on if you’ve been scammed. We walk you through the steps to take.

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed for legal accuracy in July 2019
  • Time to read: 6 minutes

Also on this topic

Still not sure what to do?

If you're looking for advice specific to your situation, there are options for free or low-cost help.

Options for legal help

Copyright 2022 People's Law School

Powered by contentful

We are grateful to work on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, whose Peoples continue to live on and care for these lands.