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FEATURE: How to fight fraud

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With scam artists becoming increasingly more adept at deception, how can you prevent yourself from being an easy victim? Barney McCarthy finds out

Losing a couple of hundred pounds as a result of criminal activity used to be a case of being confronted in a dark alleyway for your wallet or purse. While such unpleasantness still exists, the newest breed of felons have developed far more advanced methods of getting their hands on your money. Fraud is not a new concept, but the latest techniques of accessing personal information and harnessing it for financial gain are truly frightening.

Vulnerable victims

Recent research by Direct Line shows that 55 per cent of Brits are more worried than ever before about becoming a victim of identity fraud, especially in light of high-profile losses of computer discs containing millions of personal records. Its research found that address-related fraud was the most commonly cited fraud offence in the UK during the first half of 2007, but despite this, a third of Brits leave themselves vulnerable by not shredding bills, letters and documents.

Direct Line also revealed that nearly a fifth of people write their PIN down and use the same password for different accounts, exposing themselves further. Andrew Lowe, head of home insurance at Direct Line, says: “Being a victim of identity fraud can severely damage your credit rating, potentially causing problems with debt collectors, court actions and in getting a mortgage or a job, so taking precautions to protect yourself should not be underestimated.”

It recommends keeping important documents in a safe place, safeguarding PIN and password details, shredding old bank statements, not disclosing personal details over the phone if possible and subscribing to a redirection service when moving house. 

Stranger danger

But it’s not just people rifling through your bins you have to worry about. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have become increasingly popular over the last couple of years, with most people regarding them as harmless fun and a way to track down lost friends. But consumer association Which? says people leaving their personal details on such sites, particularly if they use default privacy settings, leaves their pages open for even more people to access.

Get Safe Online, a Government-sponsored site, also highlights the incongruity of computer users installing security software, then revealing all on social networking sites. Managing director Tony Neate says the popularity of such sites means that we are much more open about ourselves and our lives online. “Although some of these details may seem harmless, they actually provide rich pickings for criminals,” she says. “Your date of birth and where you live is enough for someone to set up a credit card in your name. While most people wouldn’t give this information to a stranger in real life, they will happily post it online where people they don’t know can see it.”

Which? has also expressed concern that some organisations may not be adhering to the Data Protection Act, namely Transport for London not informing Oyster card users that their journey data is being recorded and Virgin Mobile not being clear with its customers about how their data is used. Which? is urging consumers to be aware of who their personal data is being shared with. Its security checklist includes making sure you have up-to-date security software installed on your computer, not ticking ‘yes’ to sharing your details with third parties and never giving personal or bank details to anyone who contacts you unexpectedly.

Be safe

With Get Safe Online putting the average amount lost by victims of online fraud at £875, protecting your details is no small matter. Although advancements in technology have made life more convenient for us, they also leave us more exposed to the fraudsters. We may be more wary of door-to-door conmen and identity theft, but being more shrewd online can also prevent any online deception.

If you suspect that you may have been the victim of fraud, it is important to contact your bank as soon as possible to freeze or cancel the relevant accounts and minimize the damage. The police will also need to be made aware of the fraudulent activity to trace the perpetrators and ensure you are able to retrieve your money. This may sometimes take a couple of months as the bank ascertains the legitimacy of your claim, so you may have to be patient.

Be as careful online as you would in real life and be savvy when using passwords and PINs. The crooks may be upping their game, but you can make life harder for them by taking due care. 

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