The internet has become a ubiquitous presence in almost everybody’s lives and delivers much that is good, including bringing people closer together, but with the rise of the online world, identity fraud is becoming an increasingly serious problem. There is an onus on governments to do more to protect citizens from becoming victims of online fraud.
Internet fraud comes in various guises. Credit card information could be stolen as transactions are carried out online. Identities can be targeted and stolen if there is shared personal information that is stored online. Financial institutions, health service providers and even governments store people’s information on systems that are accessible via the internet. These databases enable efficient processing of customer information and transactions, but by their very nature, they are vulnerable to cyber theft and require a level of protection that, unfortunately, is not always present. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that identity theft is typically at the top of the list for all consumer complaints filed with it on an annual basis.
The vulnerability of user information is a serious issue from the perspective of governments, because identity thieves cost economies globally billions of dollars annually. The true cost is hidden because many cybercrimes go unreported to the relevant authorities.
A simple step that any government can take to promote safe behavior online is to run a promotional campaign with that very theme. In defense of the US government, to give just one example of a proactive administration, it has done exactly that, and the various government agencies with responsibility for online cybercrime have stepped up to the mark with information and advice for citizens that is easily accessible and easily understood. For instance, the guides issued by the FTC are consumer-friendly. If a government goes to the trouble of publishing advice and guidance on preventing cybercrime, is there not some responsibility on the part of citizens then to ensure that they follow the advice in our day-to-day interactions online?
Enforcement is another area in which a government can help protect people from identity theft, and in this respect, some governments are better than others. Unfortunately, there are jurisdictions around the world where regulations governing internet commerce are not as strong as they are in more established economies. Worse still, there are some parts of the world where the authorities turn a blind eye to cyber theft, enabling such activities to originate from there. Greater international cooperation is needed if identity theft is to be tackled fully.
Despite their own best efforts to be vigilant, people become victims of crime every day, and with cyber theft, it is no different. Recovering from cyber theft is a process that needs to be taken step by step. If someone is a victim of cyber theft, here are some of the steps they should take:
- Initiate a fraud alert on credit reports: A fraud alert acts as a red flag, letting lenders and creditors know that they should take additional action to verify someone’s identity before applying credit. To initiate a fraud alert, contact one of the credit reporting agencies. Alternatively, individuals could put a security freeze in respect of each of their credit reports. This would stop all creditors, except the ones with whom an individual is already conducting business, from seeing a credit report until the identity theft problem has been resolved.
- Bank detail thefts: If it is a credit card that has been stolen, contact the card provider. If bank details are compromised online, contact the bank. For example, if you know your credit card was stolen, report the theft to the credit card issuer. It is sensible to keep bank/credit card provider contact details on hand in case they are needed.
- Get in touch with the FTC: The commission will offer guidance on what to do next, depending on the fraud that has been carried out. People can file an Identity Theft Affidavit with the FTC, and the organization also facilities creation of an Identity Theft Report, which can be done online, over the phone or using the postal service. An Identity Theft Report entails contacting the local law enforcement agency and reporting the theft. The police report and/or the report number are required to complete the FTC process.
- Close new accounts fraudulently opened: Armed with an Identity Theft Report, a consumer can begin contacting institutions at which accounts have been opened using the stolen identity and have them closed. The consumer should ask the financial institution for confirmation in writing that the account is not theirs, in case the account appears on credit reports in the future. Bogus charges on accounts already opened can be tackled in a similar manner once the consumer is in possession of an Identity Theft Report.
- Social Security number theft: If a Social Security number has been compromised, get in touch with the Social Security Agency and the Internal Revenue Service. If Social Security card details have been compromised, the thief may use the details to take a tax refund for him or herself, or even obtain employment under the stolen identity.
If an individual is arrested using a stolen identity or personal information, the victim of the theft should be in touch with the relevant law enforcement agency. They may need to check court records to verify the location in which the thief was apprehended. Victims can file a report in respect of the impersonation and verify their own identity, using fingerprints and copies of relevant documentation. They should request that the law enforcement agency compare the information they have provided to that of the thief. They should also seek to have all records changed from their name to that of the imposter and ask for a letter of clearance or a certificate of release, confirming that they are innocent.
As much as governments are responsible for ensuring that all commercial transactions and other types of online communications are conducted in a secure environment, everyone has to do their bit to prevent the spread of online fraud, so the best advice for anyone is to be vigilant when online.