It’s in the details: Stolen identities on the rise

Friday, October 31st, 2008

Popularity of websites, online shopping make victims easy prey

Joey Thompson

Alexandra Straub’s short, daffodil-blond hair, fair skin, fine features and staunch German surname are hardly the characteristics of an aboriginal.

Yet in the space of three days, a woman described as heavy-set with a native status card had wheedled six reputable retailers into opening accounts under Straub’s name.

Ben Moss Jewellers, Linens-N-Things, Bell Mobility, Rogers Wireless, Home Depot and Wal-Mart handily extended the credit to the impersonator on the strength of an outdated address, Straub’s social insurance number and a fake, laminated status-Indian card.

“I thought it could never happen to me,” the chic 26-year-old victim of identity fraud said during a work break, having struggled for four months to remove the stain on her good name and credit rating.

“I’m still not sure how this girl got hold of my information. I’m also baffled as to why anyone would give credit to someone with a laminated photo ID. Are they that desperate for business?”

PhoneBusters, Canada’s sole clearing house for telemarketing and identity-theft complaints, says the criminal activity is “growing explosively,” due in part to the thousands of websites requiring registration, a profile or sign-in, as well as the proliferation of online shopping and social networking websites that angle for personal details.

Straub, export co-ordinator for a Vancouver shipping firm, recalls a trendy cafe where she worked years ago telling employees that a bundle of their T4 slips had gone missing in transit. She figures they may have fallen into the wrong hands.

Indeed, restaurants, bars and gas stations are ripe for rip-offs — anti-crime experts advise patrons to swipe their own credit card to prevent a shady clerk from accessing the information or swiping twice.

They also advise customers not to give out personal information by phone, electronic mail or voice machines and to carry as few ID documents around as possible.

Also, protect access to mail and check the accuracy of billing statements, even small purchases. And take Straub’s advice: burn or shred unwanted personal financial data.

A call from Home Depot’s fraud department confirming her new account was the first sign. Then Ben Moss checked to see if she was happy with her new $1,700 purchase.

By the time Straub put the phone down, she was on the hook for more than $3,500 in goods, including four BlackBerry Pearl smartphones.

She filed a report with Vancouver’s fraud squad, Richmond police and Surrey RCMP but theft under $10,000 is small potatoes to these bustling crime-cracking detachments. As far as she knows, no one followed up on her complaint.

But the real surprise was having to repeatedly protest her innocence to lenders and the credit bureaus, which say it could be years before her credit reputation is totally clear.

“It’s a huge pain: I was the one who had to clear my name when they were the ones screwing up.”

According to the U.S. federal trade commission, a victim can spend up to 600 hours and shell out more than $1,000 in long distance calls, notary fees, mail-outs and lost wages to repair the rating damage.

She’s since bought a shredder and has stopped applying for any points cards, or entering draws or promotions that ask for personal details.

© The Vancouver Province 2008

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