Identify theft accounts for over half of all fraud recorded in the UK, with the vast majority of fraud (87% of cases) taking place on the internet. Fraudsters are getting increasingly sophisticated. Identity thieves use a combination of fake emails, fraudulent phone calls and social media accounts to trick you. Understanding identity theft, and learning how to spot and deal with identity fraud can help you protect yourself and other family members.

What is identity theft?

Identity theft is a means to an end. It involves fraudsters tricking you into revealing personal details about yourself and then using these details to commit fraud while they pretend to be you. Identity thieves often steal personal details such as your name, address, bank account details and security sensitive data such as passwords or ‘memorable’ words that you use to confirm your identity when accessing an online account.

Identity theft happens via a variety of routes. You can be tricked into disclosing data, such as clicking on a link in a phishing email and filling in your details on a fake website that is impersonating your bank. Other routes include hacking online stores and businesses to steal usernames, email addresses and passwords, through to more physical approaches such as stealing your mail or phoning you up and pretending to be from a trusted organisation such as your bank or the police and conning you into disclosing your information.

How is identity fraud different to identity theft?

Once a fraudster has your details and has committed identity theft, they can use your details to commit identity fraud. This is when the thief pretends to be you, such as using your email address, password and memorable word to access online accounts. There’s the risk of a domino effect once you’ve fallen victim to identity theft. If a fraudster gets access to your email account, for example, they can then use that to reset passwords on your other online accounts or change delivery address details.

Identity fraud is carried out for financial gain, and uses the details stolen during identity theft to commit financial crime. Types of identity fraud include opening bank accounts, taking out new mobile phone contracts, applying for credit cards and loans, applying for a replacement passport or driving licence, or ordering goods and services that you end up paying for but never get.

The impact isn’t just money lost because a thief ordered products in your name. It can take time to prove you didn’t order the products and clear the debt, and it can also adversely affect your credit score as well, as credit issues can remain on your file even if they were committed by a fraudster.

What is identity theft – how to spot if you’ve been a victim

The sad reality is that most people aren’t aware they have been a victim of identity theft until it is too late. For most people, alarm bells ring when they spot purchases they don’t recognise appearing on their credit card statement, or if a package arrives for something that you didn’t order. Some people only become aware of identity theft when they experience credit rating problems, such as being turned down for a loan or credit card.

However, there are lots of clues that may signal you’ve been a victim of identity theft. If you remain vigilant and look out for the warning signs, you may be able to spot and stop identity fraud and minimise its impact on you and your finances. Here are some of the things to look out for which may signal you’ve been a victim of identity theft:

Unexpected purchases – The classic tell of identity fraud is unexpected purchases appearing on your bank or credit card statements – and getting purchase bills and receipts sent to your email account for goods you didn’t buy. Check your bank statements and credit card statements frequently, and if you spot something suspicious contact your back straightaway. The earlier you spot the problem, the quicker the bank can prevent more fraud taking place by issuing new cards and refunding your account for the fraudulent purchases.

Unexpected deliveries – Identity fraud can allow thieves to order products online, but they may not be able to easily change the delivery address. They rely on their ability to intercept parcels and mail sent to your home but may not always be successful. If you suddenly find yourself in receipt of parcels and packages for goods you didn’t order, check with the sender for details of the purchase and also check your credit card and bank statements, contacting the bank if there seems to be a problem.

Deliveries that go missing – Identity theft can involve the physical interception of important documents, especially ones sent through the post. If you were expecting a new credit card, current account card, driving licence or passport and they haven’t arrived it could mean that someone has intercepted them and stolen them. Contact the government agency or bank and ask them to reissue the document and cancel the previously sent document to prevent the thief from using it to take out bank loans or apply for credit.

Unexpected post and email – When people buy expensive products, quite often they’ll get added to mailing lists. The same applies if a thief has used your details to buy something. You might notice you’re getting brochures through the post or email newsletters for expensive gadgets or TV services. Unexplained catalogues through the post or offer emails could spell trouble. Contact the company to see how your details were added and how they got hold of your email or mailing address.

Two-factor verification alerts – In a bid to prevent identity theft, many online services such as banks, social media platforms or services such as mobile phone networks have switched to two-factor authentication. This sends a text message to your mobile phone with a code you need to use to complete logging in. If you find yourself getting two-factor messages being sent to your phone when you’re not trying to log into a service, it’s a good indication that someone is trying to access your account.

Credit applications fail – If you have a good credit history but suddenly find yourself being rejected when applying for a store card or credit card, or when the interest repayment rate on a loan application is higher than normal, then you may be a victim of identity theft. This is because someone might be using your details to rack up credit and costs in your name without you knowing.

Legal demands – One of the more worrying signs of identity theft is when you get overdue payment demands, bailiff letters or even court summons concerning outstanding debts you didn’t incur. This could be because someone is impersonating you to commit fraud and leaving you to face the consequences.

Bins and rubbish – While less common, identity thieves will rummage through bins looking for credit card statements, bank account details and other documents that they can use to commit identity fraud. For sensitive documents always use a shredder to destroy them, and if it looks as if your rubbish bin has been interfered with it could be a sign that someone was looking to commit identity theft.

Discover the essential actions you can take to prevent identity theft: 12 ways to stop identity fraud.

How to report identity fraud if you’ve been a victim

If you think you’ve been a victim of identity fraud, you need to act fast. Don’t put it off or think it’s OK to wait and see what happens. Notifying banks and the police can limit the damage, reduce the impact on your credit rating, and get any money stolen refunded.

Contact the police – People often skip this step as it isn’t a physical crime but identity theft and identity fraud is a real crime that causes genuine hardship. Contact your local police department or ActionFraud – a dedicated unit designed to handle reports of identity fraud. They can also help you with advice and support while you sort things out. Contact ActionFraud or call them on 0300 123 2040.

Contact your bank and credit card provider – You need to cut off the financial line used by the identity thief by getting existing cards stopped and changing the access details for your bank accounts. Most credit cards and bank cards have a phone number printed on the card that you can call. The bank will want to check recent purchases with you and understand how you’ve used your credit card. They may also share information with the police to help prosecute the identity thief.

Contact any bailiff or courts – Sometimes the first indication that you’ve been a victim of identity theft is a court summons or a bailiff letter. Don’t ignore this, even if you know you didn’t do it. It’s best to contact them and explain the situation, giving them a police case reference number to show you have reported it as a crime.

Contact your phone company – Unexpected calls and items on your phone bill can indicate identity theft, so call your phone or mobile network straightaway. They can help you identify any calls you didn’t make, remove them from your bill, and work to prevent more from happening by changing your phone number, for example.

Contact a credit reference company – Fixing credit rating problems cause by identity theft can be challenging. You can contact organisations such as Experian, Equifax or Callcredit to see your credit history. It will also list any applications for credit or loans made in your name – useful for spotting problems. They may also be able to help advise how to correct the problem and recover your credit rating. Some offer helpful alerts if anything significant happens to your credit account, such as an application for a loan.

Contact Cifas – Get yourself added to the Cifas Protective Register, which adds additional checks that need to take place before new credit can be taken out in your name. It costs £20 for two years but should help prevent future identity theft. The sad reality is that once you’ve been a victim of identity theft, quite often thieves will cycle back around and try to commit identity fraud with your details again at a later date.