A couple of months ago I was watching an American cable channel when a commercial caught my eye.
An earnest young woman was announcing loans backed by a native American community somewhere in the American southwest. The loans were for people who'd been turned down by other lenders.
I happened to be close enough to the screen to read the fine print: the stuff the woman would never say out loud; the stuff the lenders hope you don't learn until it's too late. These loans carry a staggering interest rate of nearly 300 per cent. I don't think those sort of interest rates are even legal in Canada. I remember thinking: "No one in their right mind would agree to those sort of rates."
Then I realized: you don't have to be in your right mind. You don't even have to know you've applied for the loan.
It's called identity theft.
Just like building a jigsaw puzzle, thieves try to steal pieces of who you are. They start with the obvious stuff, like your name and address. Then they go digging.
If you look at a loan or credit card application, you can see the information thieves want to steal from you. There's your birthdate, your bank accounts and credit card numbers. Maybe your Social Insurance Number. Basically any information they can use to apply -- in your name -- for a loan or new credit card.
The thieves may call you claiming to be doing a survey or running a contest or selling a product in the hopes you'll answer their questions. They may use the same tactics in an e-mail. Or they can create a website with an official-looking form you fill out to phish for your information.
There's also a very low-tech form of identity theft: dumpster diving. That bank statement you stuffed in the garbage may be old news to you, but it's a gold mine of information to an identity thief.
This is big business.
In the first five months of this year, figures from the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, the police agency which tracks these sort of crimes, shows there were 2,607 reported cases of identity theft. The estimated cost was more than $7.5 million.
Bill Van Gorder of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, CARP, thinks that number is too low.
He thinks the number of victims of identity theft may be double the official figures. Van Gorder says members of his organization are frequently too embarassed to report when they're a victim of such crimes because they don't want to admit they've been taken in. Van Gorder says older people also tend to be more trusting, and so less suspicious when confronted by an identity thief on a phishing expedition.
The cost of repairing the damage from identity theft can be high.
If you've ever lost your wallet, you know the time, expense and hassle of cancelling credit cards and getting new ones. Imagine that problem compounded by credit cards and loans in your name that you don't even know about.
The problems can linger, too. Jill Atkinson of the Better Business Bureau says if can be hard to repair your financial reputation after an identity theft. After all, if your identity was stolen once, how does the loan officer know that the person standing in front of him is really you?
Atkinson says it's much easier to guard your information in the first place, than to repair your reputation after the fact.
Something for you -- the real you -- to think about.