As a precaution, don't reveal any personal information until you know how it will be used and if it will be shared.

Identity theft has been called the crime of the information age, with thousands of victims each year in Canada.

In 2008, PhoneBusters reported 12,142 identity-theft complaints in Canada and losses amounting to $9,590,385.05.

In 2007, consumers were shaken by news that millions of credit card accounts were compromised after hackers stole customer information from computer systems of TJX Cos., the U.S. parent firm of Canadian retailers Winners and HomeSense.

The hack was discovered in mid-December 2006 and included transactions between 2003 and part of 2006.

Canada's privacy commissioner said TJX Cos. could have prevented the breach that jeopardized 45.7 million credit and debit cards but failed to take necessary precautions, including upgrading the company's encryption technology.

Signs someone may be using your identity

  • A creditor informs you that an application for credit was received with your name and address, which you did not apply for.
  • Telephone calls or letters state that you have been approved or denied by a creditor that you never applied to.
  • You receive credit card statements or other bills in your name, which you did not apply for.
  • You no longer receive credit card statements or you notice that not all of your mail is delivered.
  • A collection agency informs you they are collecting for a defaulted account established with your identity and you never opened the account.

On Jan. 20, 2009, U.S.-based Heartland Payment Systems — which processes credit card transactions for more than 250,000 businesses — said it uncovered a major security breach. The company had uncovered malicious software in its processing system.

Heartland said the breach did not affect merchant data, social security numbers, unencrypted personal identification numbers, addresses or telephone numbers. Canadian merchants weren't affected, but Canadians who used a Visa or MasterCard credit card in the United States were advised to carefully check their credit card statements.

In August, a federal grand jury indicted three people accused of hacking into Heartland Payment System's files. Authorities allege the suspects snatched data for more than 130 million credit and debit cards.

Identity theft can happen to anyone. Experts say the best protection is prevention.

How to avoid identity theft

  Identity theft complaints (2006)
 Jurisdictions  Victims  Losses in $
ON 3,353 $7,584,188.86
QC 2,040  $4,674,504.44 
BC 1,190  $2,035,365.27 
AB 612  $1,439,474.29 
MB  249  $151,860.16 
SK  94  $61,192.28 
NS  106  $155,039.49 
NB 67  $92,396.07 
NL 29  $30,107.04 
Unknown 12  $3,102.62 
PEI  11  $17,059.00 
NWT  $3,102.62 
YK $2,379.23 
NU  $0 
Totals   7,778 $16,283,776.91 
 Source: PhoneBusters  

Identity thieves commit fraud and other crimes by assuming someone else's identity. Personal information such as your name, date of birth, address, credit card, social insurance number and other identification can be used to steal money from your existing accounts, open other financial accounts, make purchases, or even obtain employment.

If you're a victim of identity theft, you could be left with bills, bad credit and the hassle of dealing with financial agencies and police departments to clear your name.

The following are tips to safeguard your identity.

  • Before you reveal any personal information, find out how it will be used and if it will be shared.
  • Check your financial statements to ensure all purchases listed are yours.
  • Use passwords that are not easily guessed on your credit card, bank and phone accounts.
  • Shield your PIN when using automated teller machines.
  • Carry only the identification information you need. Keep other documents such as your social insurance number, birth certificate and passport in a safe place.
  • Never give out personal information on the phone, by mail or through the internet unless you initiated the contact or know with whom you are dealing.
  • Guard your mail.
  • Shred documents that contain personal financial information, such as statements, credit card offers, copies of credit applications, receipts and insurance forms, before throwing them out.

What to do if you're a victim of identity fraud

Protecting your information online

The past couple of years have seen the rise of "spoofing" and "phishing," and of the number of home users falling victim to these online scams.

Phishing is fraudulent e-mail that tries to dupe recipients into providing their personal and financial information, such as credit card numbers or online banking passwords.

It works this way: By "spoofing" e-mails, phishing attacks make it appear as if the messages comes from a legitimate organization that a home user may have dealt with, such as a bank or a credit card company. The e-mail may request account details for "urgent security reasons." The message may also point the recipient to a "spoofed" website that resembles the real financial site.

In March 2006, Ottawa police said they uncovered a major identity theft scam that preyed on more than 100 victims across Canada and allegedly racked up more than $500,000 in charges on credit cards. Police found 60 credit cards, social insurance cards and drivers licences issued in the names of the victims. Two suspects were arrested.

Online employment ads were used to lure victims to send resumes, said police.

After applying, the victims received a letter promising a high-paying position from one of four companies. The letter asked candidates to fill out an application form, which requested personal information such as a social insurance number, a driver's licence number, full name and address. That information was then used to apply for credit cards.

If you suspect your personal information has been used without your knowledge, here's what you can do. 

  • Keep a record of correspondence and conversations about clearing your name and credit.
  • Contact your financial institutions and local police.
  • Put a fraud alert on your credit report by contacting Equifax and TransUnion.
  • Contact Canada Post if your mail is missing.
  • Contact PhoneBusters at 1-888-495-8501 to help stop fraud.

 Tips on how to safeguard your mail
  •  Deposit outgoing mail in Canada Post mailboxes or at your local post office and remove mail from your mailbox promptly after delivery.
  • File change-of-address notices with Canada Post and all of your financial institutions before you move.
  • If credit card or utility bills fail to arrive, contact companies immediately to ensure bills have not fraudulently been redirected.
  • If you are going away or can't pick up your mail for any other reason, have it collected by a trusted neighbour or file a hold mail request with Canada Post.
  • Contact Canada Post if you have received no mail for an unusual period based on your normal delivery patterns.

Source: Canada Post