Readers of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley (or audiences of the 1995 feature film starring Matt Damon and Jude Law) may have the misplaced comfort that changing technology and investigative techniques have directed Ripley's ruse to fiction. Instead the opposite is true.
In the story, the working class Tom Ripley takes advantage of opportunity and ingenuity to assume the identity and fortune of wealthy Dickie Greenleaf. After recognising an uncanny physical resemblance between the pair, Ripley practices imitating Greenleaf's style of dress, manner of speaking and signature - a combination which allows Ripley to assume Greeneaf's identity and wealth.
Identity theft continues today — even in the absence of physical similarities between thief and victim.
Our personal information is now collected in thousands of different ways. We are increasingly identified by a series of numbers such as those on a drivers licence, passport, tax file, bank account, credit card or customer files. We are also routinely asked to divulge personal phone numbers, addresses and email addresses. We provide these details to many different people and organisations.
We use our personal information to complete significant transactions — without ever meeting the person we give the information. That means someone with access to one or more of those numbers and other snippets of information may successfully impersonate us to carry out transactions in our name.
Perhaps emboldened by the relative anonymity of such activities, the number of villains and the range of modern identity theft have grown exponentially. Some estimates suggest the financial cost of identity theft is $2 billion each year in Australia, — a figure dwarfed by the more than $100 billion estimated to be lost worldwide annually.
The first and fundamental step in preventing identity theft is to reduce the opportunities. This means being particularly vigilant with the extent to which you share your information with third parties.
For example, many standard forms provide space for multiple identity fields. However, do you really need to provide all 3 telephone contact numbers, your full name and work and home email addresses simply to enter the local footy club raffle?
Think of your various identifiers as being keys to assuming your identity. You would not leave the keys to your office, car or home laying around, so take the same care to safeguard your identifying information.
It is usually easier for villains to observe and record and share the information you may provide in a public place. Therefore think twice about providing any of your information in public places such as internet cafes, public libraries or business centres. It is not just the internet either — it might be as simple as an identity thief over-hearing your conversation in public.
Once you acknowledge the risk of identity theft you should structure your affairs to minimise the consequences if you become a victim.
Review and control the amount and type of assets and lines of credit to which you have access.
Early detection of identity theft can be difficult but is crucial to minimise the potential consequences arising from the theft.
A patient and sophisticated identity thief, having secured your identity, may use it to secure multiple additional sources of supporting identification before abusing the stolen identity.
Often the first warning will not be provided by unauthorised financial transactions. You should therefore ensure that you regularly order and review a copy of your credit report which may provide you with alternate warnings. Some providers also offer to provide, for a relatively modest fee, a service which provides email alerts for activity on your credit file.
If your credit report indicates an unexplained activity, then you should contact the person or organisation who conducted the search and ask why it conducted those searches. This may disclose efforts by an identity thief to obtain services or credit in your name.
You should securely maintain the current contact details necessary to promptly report identity theft. Store this list securely and review it regularly.
You need to respond to identity theft as soon as possible. It is likely to be an unsettling time for most victims. Even so, it is particularly important in those circumstances that victims maintain clear written records of the date, time, contacts and content in respect of all action they take. These records may provide significant assistance in reducing losses and prosecuting the thief.
If you are a victim of identity theft, then the organisations you need to contact as soon as possible include:
Even after you respond to identity theft, you must continue to monitor the use of your identity. There may be dormant or later actions purported to be conducted in your name well after the initial incidents.
Again, you should regularly obtain copies of your credit report and promptly close all unauthorised accounts made in your name.
These basic strategies will help to reduce the chance that you become a victim of identity theft. However, it is important to stay vigilant and informed about the changing risks of identity theft. Just as Ripley's ruse to replicate Greenleaf's physical appearance has morphed into many modern equivalent schemes, tomorrow's incarnations of Ripley are expected to find new ways of assuming your identity.
For further information about protecting your identity or assistance on this issue please contact call Maddocks in Melbourne (03 9288 0666) or Sydney (02 8223 4100) and ask for a member of the Maddocks Information Technology and Intellectual Property Team.
Geoff Musgrove is a partner in the Maddocks Commercial team.
Geoff's principal areas of practice are:
Geoff acts for a wide range of commercial, government, accounting, manufacturing, professional and rural industry clients.
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For more information, contact Maddocks on (03) 9258 3555 and ask to speak to a member of their team.