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How to protect your identity offline

Shredded paper

It's not just online where you have to protect your identity: we explain how to reduce the offline risks

Most identity theft occurs online because it is relatively easy for criminals to find personal information without being detected. However, crimes involving bad guys impersonating their victims for financial gain have been committed for as long as identity documents have existed. The simple fact is that our identity is linked to pieces of paper and having copies of someone else’s documents can be all that is required to pose as them. And if you can do that you can try to claim benefits, raise loans and apply for credit cards.

Not all identity theft is for money, though. One famous example is of Hollywood actor Wallace Ford, who acquired official documents including a passport in the name of his dead friend and lived a fake life for thirty years until his death in 1966. Other examples have included spies who have set themselves up with new lives. These stories make for interesting reading and if you want to know more search for “ghosting”. For now, let’s discuss how to avoid having someone impersonate you and cause you financial grief.

First, even though criminals can steal your data offline, there’s a good chance that they may try and sell the information online. For that reason, you should install protection software, such as such as BullGuard Identity Theft Protection, which can monitor the internet for your personal details and warn you if they turn up for sale, so you can deal with the problem quickly before it’s too late.

What do identity thieves need?

When you open a new bank account or apply for a credit card you need to prove your identity and your address. The exact documents vary between different card providers but in the UK a common selection includes a passport or driving license as well as a bank statement or utility bill that shows your address. While there are a range of different options available, the applicant gets to choose which to offer and this works in the criminals’ favour.

In the UK, a national insurance number could be used to help bolster a fake identity, while in the US, where many people don’t have a passport, the Social Security Number (SSN) is a powerful identifier. US readers should take a great deal of care of their SSN and only provide it when necessary, treating it as a highly sensitive piece of data.

How do criminals steal the data?

For someone to impersonate you sufficiently well to obtain funds in your name they need to know enough about you to obtain these pieces of information. You might assume that the criminals will go digging through your rubbish bins looking for discarded bank statements and the like but it’s far more likely they’ll take an easier approach.

Utility bill

For example, they could just call you on the telephone and ask you to send them the information. The police advise that if you receive such a call hang up, wait five minutes and call your bank from a different telephone, making sure that there is a dial tone. This is because criminals have been calling victims and then pretending to hang up. When a victim calls the bank the criminal is still on the line and pretends to be a bank employee.

Criminals aren’t always organised. Sometimes they can be opportunistic so try to avoid leaving official documents lying around, ideally locking them in a drawer. This is particularly relevant for those who live in shared accommodation.

If you decide to throw away old documents, shred them first. Shredding machines are available on the high-street from around £20. Invest in one that provides ‘cross cut’ shredding as this not only cuts pages into strips but also cuts across those strips, creating a pile of small shreds that are harder to reassemble.


Moving home

When you move home some mail will inevitably be delivered to your old address for some time. Sign up to a mail redirection service for a minimum of a year or risk the new owner or tenant receiving mail containing some of your important information. Similarly, if you stop receiving credit card statements alert the credit card company immediately, as someone may have redirected your mail.

After a couple of months of moving home, check your personal credit using one of the three agencies: Callcredit, Equifax or Experian.

What’s in your wallet?

If you store your credit cards and driving licence in the same wallet you’ve packaged up a full set of tools required by an identity thief. Lose that wallet, or have it stolen, and you could lose a lot more than the cash you’ve stashed there. Consider keeping cards in a separate wallet to your license. The same goes for keeping your passport separately to your cards when travelling. If they are all stored in the same wallet or bag you’ll face massive inconvenience as you try to enjoy the rest of your holiday and somehow travel home. If someone steals your identity too, that will really create havoc.

If you lose your cards you should call the providers as soon as possible to have them cancelled. This is less about protecting your identity and more about minimising direct financial loss. However, if you follow our tip about keeping bank and identity cards separate you might also consider storing the emergency phone numbers for the card providers in the same wallet as your ID card(s). That way, if you lose only your bank cards, you can react fast and call the right people immediately.

Don’t give it away

In the UK, registered voters have a choice of how their details are published. There are two versions of the electoral register: the ‘open register’ and the ‘full register’. By default your details, including your name and address, are published in the open register, which can be searched by any member of the public or businesses that want to verify people’s identities. You can opt out of this and have your details only stored in the more restricted register, which is used solely for voting in elections, criminal detection and prevention, and loans and credit application checking. You can still vote even if you opt out of the open register. Opting out usually involves ticking a box when you fill in your voter registration form, which is sent out every year. Alternatively, contact your local Electoral Registration Office.

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