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Protect yourself from the pain of identity theft

Identity theft is a type of fraud where a scammer uses your identity to steal money or gain other benefits at your expense.

In this article, we’ll look at the most common methods of identity theft; what scammers aim to do with your personal information; the warning signs you should watch out for; and how to protect yourself.

What are the most common methods of identity theft?

There are many forms of identity theft, but broadly they fall into the following categories:

  • Phishing: Scammers try to dupe you into handing over your personal information.
  • Hacking: Scammers find way to access your information by exploiting security weaknesses on your computer or mobile phone. (An alternative form of this is where scammers obtain your information by hacking into business accounts – generally much harder to do but, if successful, they gain access to much larger databases of information. Sadly, this form is beyond your personal control.)
  • Remote access: Scammers trick you into giving them access to your computer, often by posing as someone you trust.
  • Installing malware: Malware is a type of software that gives scammers access to your files so they can track what you’re doing. Once scammers find a way to install malware on your computer, you may not even know it is there.
  • Installing ransomware: A type of software that demands payment to “unlock” your computer or files.
  • Fake online profiles or “catfishing”: Scammers set up fake profiles on social media or dating sites and trick you into trusting them as real people.

What do scammers do with your personal information?

Once they gain access to your personal information, scammers may use it to:

  • Access and steal funds from your bank account
  • Open new bank accounts in your name and take out loans or lines of credit
  • Steal your superannuation
  • Gain access to your online government services
  • Access your email or social media accounts to discover sensitive information
  • Access your email or social media accounts to impersonate you to scam your family and friends

What are the warning signs that someone is after your personal information?

The first step a scammer takes in stealing your identity is generally discovering your personal information. For example, you might receive an unsolicited email, text or phone call asking for your bank or credit card details. Or you may receive an email, text or phone call asking you to validate personal details by clicking a link or opening an attachment – however, the attachment may be hiding some sort of malware or ransomware.

Another sign is poor grammar. Very rarely are scammers able to string together a perfect sentence, both grammatically and in terms of spelling. That said, you shouldn’t simply trust an email or text just because it’s well-written; but rather, note that poorly written communications are a big red flag.

You may also notice unexpected “pop-ups” on your computer or mobile device asking you if you would like to run software – a sign that malware has found its way on to your computer. And you receive a friend request from someone you don’t know on social media, it may be a sign that someone is looking to “catfish” you.

What are the warning signs that your identity has been compromised?

If your identity has already been compromised, there are many warning signs that may reveal it. For example, you may find that you can’t log into your social media profile or media account. Or you may receive a notification that your profile has been logged into from an unusual location. These are signs that your email or social media profiles have been compromised.

Keep a close eye on your bank account, too. If you notice money has gone missing without any explanation, contact your bank immediately. Or if you receive bills, invoices or receipts addressed to you for goods or service that you didn’t purchase yourself, this too can be a warning sign. (Note: Make sure the bills, invoices and receipts come via reputable trusted sources, as some scammers will send “fake” receipts to you as a means of scamming you.)

How can you protect yourself?

Never open suspicious emails or texts, and especially do not open the links inside them. Delete them immediately. If you’re uncertain about the identity of someone getting in touch with you, contact the relevant organisation directly via phone. And don’t use contact details that were given to you by that person– do a separate search either with a phone book or online with Google.

Keep the following in mind too:

  • Never send money or give personal details (especially credit card details) to someone you don’t know or trust
  • Never give strangers remote access to your computer
  • Select passwords that are tough for others to guess – don’t use the same one for every account, and don’t share them with anyone.
  • Invest in antivirus software to secure your network and devices
  • Don’t use public computers or public Wi-Fi hot spots to access sensitive personal information (such as online bank accounts).

What to do if you think you’ve been scammed

If you think you’ve been scammed, contact the relevant institution immediately – e.g. your bank, the Australian Tax Office, government passport provider, etc.

You can also contact IDCARE on 1800 595 160, which can work with you to develop a specific response plan to your situation and can support you through the process.