TORONTO (CUP) — More than a year ago, student Matt Richardson received an e-mail requesting he update his bank records. He clicked on the attached link and gave his personal information over to what, in reality, was a fraudulent website.
Richardson’s next credit card statement listed more than $5,000 in goods he never purchased. To list a few: Webcams, CD/DVD burners and cables from a Japanese computer equipment store, a couch from Germany and an X-Box from an Arizona eBay seller.
Richardson, 18, is the victim of identity theft – one of the fastest-growing fraud-related crimes in North America. By stealing a person’s name, date of birth, address, credit card, Social Insurance Number and personal identification numbers, thieves can open credit card and bank accounts, redirect mail, rent vehicles, equipment or accommodations, and even secure employment, unbeknownst to the victim until it’s too late.
In 2004, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 635,000 consumer fraud and identity theft complaints – and naive students, such as Richardson, are often sitting ducks.
“Students lead hectic lives,” says Richard Owens, executive director for the Centre for Innovation Law and Policy.
“Sometimes they just don’t have time to be careful about privacy policies and money matters, which is exactly what makes them a prime target for identity theft. [Thieves will] steal your future if you let them.”
Con-artists use various techniques to get personal information, said Constable Mark Williams of the Toronto police crime prevention department at 52 division. Illegal scanners at retail stores can steal data from the magnetic strip on the back of the card. It can be as simple as watching a person enter their pin number into an ATM, or going through someone’s trash in hopes they’ve tossed valuable records, he says.
“Make sure that you shred all of your paperwork,” advised Williams, who said thieves often rummage through trash for personal information. “Just be vigilant about who gets your information.”
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada suggests these key steps to protect yourself from identity theft:
* Protect your computer from hackers by using a firewall, anti-virus software and other security programs. Malicious code (through viruses, worms and Trojan horses) is becoming a popular method for obtaining personal information.
* Telephone offers that sound too good to be true usually are. Make sure you are never pressured into disclosing personal information, agreeing to a contract or making a monetary commitment.
* Be skeptical of emails that are sent to you from any institution or company that requests that you provide personal information online.
And as far as e-mails such as the one Richardson received, delete them immediately.
“Banks aren’t going to ask you for information they already have,” said Scotiabank consultant Jon Thompson.
Richardson’s case is still being investigated, and in the meantime, he works two part-time jobs while attending university full time to make up for his stolen education fund.
“It’s a traumatizing experience and I want to do whatever I can to inform students about the possibilities so that it doesn’t happen to them, too,” Richardson said. “It’s not a simple one, two, three step procedure. It’s really hard to clear your name and your record.”
If you ever suspect that your personal information may have been compromised, contact the proper authorities, which may include the police, your bank, credit card issuer and credit bureaus, as soon as possible.