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Have you received an unexpected email or text asking you to ‘confirm’ personal details by clicking on a link or opening an attachment? It could be an attempt to steal your information for financial gain. Identity theft is on the rise, so it’s important to know how to protect yourself.

It’s hard to believe people may be trawling through your garbage or waiting for you to click on an email so they can pick up some personal information about you. But the unfortunate reality is that identity theft is a big problem and one that’s growing over time.

According to the Australian Federal Police (AFP), once criminals have your information, they can apply for a credit card or other financial services, open a bank account, run up debts or obtain a loan – all in your name. They could also apply for a job, government benefits, a mobile phone contract, a driving licence or a passport in your name.

The more technology advances, the better scammers get at separating people from their money – and you may become a victim without even knowing it. Some people only realise when bank statements don’t arrive or they are receiving no post at all. That’s because the fraudsters have redirected their mail to themselves. Others find out when they see items on their bank statements that they don’t recognise or receive letters from solicitors or debt collectors for loans or accounts that have been set up in their name.

The rising costs

In December 2018, the Australian Institute of Criminology revealed that the total annual cost to the Australian economy of identity theft was $2.65 billion. Worryingly, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which manages the Scamwatch website, noted in a submission to government that the loss of personal information appears to be a growing problem.

Of all the types of financial fraud and other scams reported to Scamwatch in 2017, 13.3% involved a person losing their personal information, with total financial losses of $11.8 million. By comparison, data for the year to 31 October 2018 shows an increase in cases to 16.1%, with victims of identity theft out of pocket by $20.4 million as a result.

Be alert for potential threats

Protecting yourself from this type of fraud and theft starts with being aware of the ways scammers can try to access your information.

Scamwatch says a common method is via phishing. The scammer will send you an email or SMS, pretending to be from a reputable company, such as your bank. They will usually direct you to a bogus website for entering personal or financial information.

Another method used is hacking where scammers gain access to your information by exploiting security weaknesses on your computer, mobile device or network. You can be more vulnerable to these attacks by setting reused and easily guessed passwords for your online accounts, having out-of-date anti-virus software, and using unsecured Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections.

Alternatively, some hackers use malware, and make contact to tricking you into installing software that allows them to access your files and track your transactions and online interactions.

Some scammers have been known to bypass technology altogether, and get hold of your personal information from unlocked mailboxes or discarded personal documents. Research by Fellowes Australia, a provider of paper shredders which has a website on identity fraud, shows that 79% of household waste contains at least one or more items which could assist identity theft.

The increasing amounts of personal information people make available on social networking sites creates another opportunity to commit identity theft. Fellowes says date of birth, address, full name and place of birth will often be enough to get someone’s identity stolen. By combining personal information provided to unsecured websites and social media accounts, such as your mother’s maiden name, with other details, scammers may have enough to apply for credit in your name.