Guarding against electronic identity theft

Simply put, no one wants to be a victim of this most unfortunate act.

Electronic transactions have become quicker, easier and popular. They are more convenient than a bank line and as such more prevalent.

We live in an era of online purchases where anonymity is an accepted custom; and online banking is viewed as advantageous since the need for face-to-face interaction between customer and banker when making money transactions has been removed.

But what exactly is identity theft? Simply put, it occurs when someone unlawfully obtains another person’s identity information and uses it to commit theft or fraud.

Identity information includes a person’s name, driver’s licence information, taxpayer registration number (TRN), birth records, passport numbers, credit card numbers, and e-mail addresses.

These bits of information, when placed in the hands of criminals, can have devastating effects on victims, and can result in significant loss to the individual as well as financial institutions.

Think for a moment of a person’s driver’s licence. Seemingly, that small square plastic may merely be regarded as the primary record of identification used when conducting business. But more than that, it contains information regarding its owner’s full name, gender, birth date, tax payer registration number, address; and most importantly, it contains a photo image.

This information in the hands of the lawful owner gives ease of access to all that he or she owns. But in the hands of the criminal, the same information can be of equal benefit.

Now consider the fact that today, a person does not need to touch, physically see or use an actual driver’s licence card to gain access to identity information of an unsuspecting person.

More alarming is the realisation that transactions can be completed online without the need for verification of identification. The internet cannot realistically require a physical card to execute an online purchase. Therefore, credit card and in some instances debit card numbers and their 3-digit security codes are sufficient to gain access to a person’s accounts and to make fraudulent purchases. Again, this unauthorised access can occur without physically laying hold of the card.

It has been emphasised in society that identity theft constitutes a very serious threat to the public given the highly impersonal nature of modern banking transactions and the vulnerability of electronic security systems to identify theft.

Regrettably, that is easily accepted. What is unsettling though is having to accept that these offences are very difficult to solve because it is equally as difficult to arrest the guilty parties in cases like this.

Quite quickly one can discover that theft of any degree has taken place from an account. However, being able to determine who committed the act, their location and under what circumstances they gained access to the account are problematic. It can take considerable time for law enforcement to even identify the alleged culprit.

Can you imagine instances in which multiple parties are involved? It is often very difficult to find all the responsible parties because of the anonymity involved in the withdrawal process, the difficulty in connecting all relevant parties or determining the mastermind. It is not unusual for physical withdrawers or illegal users of cards to be influenced or assisted by others.

The ease of access, organised rings that participate, prevalence of the offence and marginal likelihood of being held responsible are reasons why identity theft and related crimes (crimes committed through stealing people’s identity) are undoubtedly a serious threat to the public order. It is a threat to privacy, particularly the financial security of individuals and a significant threat to the proper functioning of the banking system.

The legislation that deals with the lottery scamming offences has created an offence for possession of identity information with the intention of committing any offence including theft or fraud.

It cannot be over-emphasised that protecting against identity theft begins with the consumer who must be vigilant in securing their identity information.

Online identity theft can occur in many ways; but a common and relatable instance is the ‘phishing scam’ phenomenon. A phishing scam e-mail simply put is an email which invites you to verify personal information. Here the sender masquerades as an authentic institution, but is merely seeking to obtain your personal information. Once that information is received, it allows them to in many instances gain access to your bank accounts and vital assets.

Therefore, it is imperative for users to be extremely careful when invited by email to open a link to their bank’s website or to access some financial service through a link. Be even more alarmed when you are being invited further to access and then verify your username and password to gain access to your bank account.

Sometimes, a similar logo to that used by the financial institution even appears in the e-mail to deceive the user into believing that it is an authentic email.

Certainly these emails are dangerous. If you see such an email, contact your financial institution immediately to verify authenticity.

Using unsecured wireless networks to access bank accounts can also be dangerous. What you may not know is that it exposes the user. As a rule of thumb, open wireless networks should never be used when accessing private data. Others may be able to track the sites visited and the more astute may be able to see your sensitive data inclusive of your identity information.

Identity theft emerges as a sophisticated and organised criminal activity. It must be tackled firstly by people taking responsibility for the protection of their identity. Safeguards and protective measures must be employed by all. Personal vigilance is the most important weapon in an individual’s arsenal.

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