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Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Data protection and identity theft

Identity theft affects more than 100,000 people every year. By finding out a few of your personal details, criminals can apply for bank accounts, credit cards, benefits and official documents in your name. You can protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity theft by taking a few simple steps.

How to protect yourself

A common way of getting your personal details is by stealing discarded documents, letters and receipts from your rubbish. You may also be contacted by telephone or email by someone pretending to be from a legitimate organisation, asking for personal information from you.

To protect yourself:

  • shred all personal information before throwing it away in your rubbish; this includes anything referring to bank accounts, National Insurance details, salary information, and old bank cards
  • delete any suspicious emails from organisations requesting personal information from you (banks will never ask for personal details by email)
  • be extra vigilant when giving out personal information - it's easy for criminals to fake email addresses, websites, headed paper and other methods of communication
  • if you move house, make sure you tell your bank and other organisations in advance, and arrange for the Royal Mail to redirect your mail
  • tell the Royal Mail if you suspect your mail is going missing

Possible signs that you have become a victim of identity theft include:

  • mail going missing - this may include regular bank statements and credit card bills that suddenly stop arriving
  • rubbish bags being tampered with or disappearing
  • getting bills or letters about things that you haven’t bought or signed up for
  • unusual payments or direct debits appearing on your bank statements

Further steps

Apply for a credit report

Apply for a copy of your credit files, which will include details of organisations that you have had financial dealings with in recent years.

There are three main credit reference agencies (Callcredit, Equifax and Experian), which may hold different information about you. A statutory credit report by post costs £2, or you can register for their online services.

When you receive your report, check through it thoroughly. If you find anything listed that you don’t recognise, contact the organisation immediately.

Report stolen or missing mail

If you think your post is missing, contact the Royal Mail. You can report the details on the Royal Mail website, or speak to a customer service advisor on 08457 740 740. They will redirect your query to an investigations unit which will handle your enquiry.

Notify your local police station

Even if you have no firm reason to believe you have become a victim of identity theft, you should always tell the police if your rubbish has been tampered with, or if you have any other related concerns.

Data Protection Act

The Data Protection Act regulates how your personal information is used and protects you from misuse of your personal details.

The details of the Data Protection Act are quite complex, but at the heart of it are eight common-sense rules known as the Data Protection Principles.

These require personal information to be:

  • fairly and lawfully processed
  • processed for limited purposes
  • adequate, relevant and not excessive
  • accurate
  • not kept longer than necessary
  • processed in accordance with your rights
  • kept secure
  • not transferred abroad without adequate protection

Organisations using personal information ('data controllers') must comply with these Principles.

The Act provides stronger protection for sensitive information about your ethnic origins, political opinions, religious beliefs, trade union membership, health, sexual life and any criminal history.

Getting access to your information

The Act, with some exceptions, gives you the right to find out what information is held about you by organisations. This is known as the 'right of subject access'. On written request, you are entitled to be supplied with a copy of all the information an organisations holds about you.

The organisation may charge a fee for providing the information, up to a maximum of £10 in most instances and up to £50 in the case of manual (i.e. non-electronic) medical records. To see what information is held on you by credit reference agencies costs £2.

Stopping direct marketing

You also have the right to stop organisations using your personal information for direct marketing purposes. You can do this by registering your details with one of the preference services.

The Act is enforced by an independent authority called the Information Commissioner.  He has powers to take action against organisations that misuse information about you.

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