Wise up to fraud
Discovering that someone has charged thousands of pounds worth of cash and goods to your credit card is scary.
Apart from the fear that you will be held responsible for the debt, there is the nasty feeling that your privacy has been invaded and your identity could be used for other neferious purposes, such as securing a loan or claiming benefits.
In mid-January I made such a discovery. My Barclaycard was being used to withdraw up to £900 per day in cash to purchase expensive items from Apple, HMV and Argos.
I only discovered this because I wanted to inform Barclaycard that I was going to be using the credit card during my holidays in the Canary Islands.
Having had my card suspended a couple of times last year because Barclaycard was wrongly concerned that it was being used by an unauthorised person, I did not want the provider to jump to erroneous conclusions again.
Before being put through to an adviser I was informed by an automatically generated voice of the balance due on my account, which was several thousand pounds more than I expected.
I was also told I could check 'how and where' I had been spending my money by registering online at barclaycard.co.uk.
When I tried to do so I was persistently blocked and eventually told that my card was already registered and I must use a password, which I did not have.
Alarm bells began to ring so I contacted customer services, waited ages to be put through to an adviser in a call centre in India, and then had to prove my identity by answering questions about the recent expenditure on the card.
This was difficult since someone else had been making most of the transactions, but I eventually 'passed' by identifying the veterinary practice where I had recently taken our spaniels.
The conversation that ensued was unnerving. The adviser told me there had been a string of £300 withdrawals from cashpoints hundreds of miles away from my home, plus purchases from stores in the same area.
When I asked why Barclaycard had not queried these withdrawals because I never use credit cards to withdraw cash, he countered that I must have been responsible as my Pin had been used.
Matters got worse when he asked me to confirm my address so he could send me a copy of the transactions. It emerged that my card had been registered to a new address and telephone number.
As a result my December statement had been sent to the fraudster, and had Barclaycard telephoned to query the unusual changes in my spending pattern, which it may well have done, whoever answered would have assured them that all was well.
At this point my adviser conceded that fraud might be involved, so I was transferred first to his supervisor and then to Barclaycard's specialist fraud team.
They agreed to stop my old card immediately, send me a new one with a new number, and also freeze any outstanding liabilities until it was clear which ones I had genuinely incurred.
Reassuringly, they said I would not have to pay for money that was shown to have been stolen from my account. Less comfortingly, they said my experiences were increasingly common.
CIFAS, the UK's fraud protection service, which has more than 265 member organisations spread across: banking, credit cards, asset finance, retail credit, mail order, insurance, investment management, telecommunications, factoring and share dealing, recorded a 32% increase in identity fraud in 2009.
The internet was involved in more than 70% of cases; the sharpest upturn was seen in the prevalence of bank account, mobile phone and mail order fraud.
How to protect yourself
The story that emerged in my case was that someone had secured my card number, my name and address, and presumably date of birth, and used it to register my Barclaycard online on 9 December.
The fraudster then conducted some electronic communications. First 'my' address and telephone number were changed, a Pin reminder was requested to be sent to that new address and on 30 December the fraudster claimed the card had been damaged and requested a replacement.
When it arrived the fraudster began running through my credit limit as quickly as possible.
Some of the details needed to commit this type of crime are available from electoral rolls, parish registers, and even the phone book, all of which are hard to block.
But there are many other sources of information that you should do everything in your power to protect.
A lot of your personal documents, such as passports, driving licences, birth and marriage certificates, carry valuable information about you - including your date of birth and, in some cases, your mother's maiden name.
So keep them locked away where casual visitors, tradesmen or, worse still, burglars, cannot see them.
If utility bills, bank statements, credit card statements and wage slips are not filed away discreetly they should be shredded or burned, as should any credit and debit card receipts.
If you move house make sure all mail is redirected until you are confident that all correspondents have updated your new address.
If regular bills and statements do not reach you by post when you expect them to, you should be worried, not relieved.
CIFAS warns that criminals may have stolen them and can use the information they include to steal from you. They may even have arranged for some or all of your mail to be diverted.
Even more alarmingly, in some respects, CIFAS adds that friends and family may try to use information about you fraudulently on the assumption that you will not be held responsible.
Apparently benign internet sites, including fashion retailers and family tree searches, may pose questions that should be answered with considerable care.
More obviously, phishing is used by criminals to obtain personal details so never respond to an online request from anyone for personal details and Pins.
Recent scams have included bogus appeals for Haiti earthquake relief, which requested personal account details. Just as importantly, if you bank online or are sent financial documents be careful about where you store them.
Richard Hurley, communications manager at CIFAS, sums up the protective steps: "Not only must consumers dispose of physical details in a secure manner, but they should also ensure that sensitive electronic documents are kept separate from each other.
"Scanned documents and account details should not be kept on computer hard drives but backed up on disc, with full virus and email protection products in place."
This article was originally published in Money Observer - Moneywise's sister publication - in July 2010
Phishing scams are typically fraudulent email messages from seemingly legitimate sources (your internet service provider, mobile phone provider, bank etc). These messages usually direct you to a counterfeit website or ask you to divulge private information (password, PIN, credit card numbers, or other account updates), which is then used to commit identity theft.
Issued by a bank as part of a current account and, in a nutshell, serves as electronic cash. Unlike a credit or charge card, where you get an interest-free period before you have to settle the bill, the funds spent on a debit card are withdrawn immediately from your current account. Unless you’ve arranged an overdraft, if you don’t have the cash in the account, you can’t spend it.
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.