Canadians very vulnerable to identity theft, survey shows

ID theft has grown more common and dangerous over the past five years. With credit card numbers being sold online for as little as 50 cents, Canadian consumers and companies need more than common sense to stay safe.

While ID theft is rapidly growing, most Canadians are unaware of the seriousness of the threat and are taking only the most basic steps against preventing this menace, a new survey indicates.

Almost half of Canadians don’t realize that identity theft can damage their line of credit, and more than half carry their Social Insurance Number (SIN) in their wallet unnecessarily, according to the Sigma Assistel identity theft survey released March 18.

This criminal threat has grown in magnitude over the past five years, and Canadians need to become more aware of the tremendous harm it can do, says Pierre Julien, director of business development at Sigma Assistel.

So far about one in 10 Canadians has been a victim of identity theft.

Even victims haven’t realized the full import of the menace, Julien says. “The most disturbing fact is 74 per cent have never even asked for a credit report.”

Every Canadian can ask for a free credit report once a year from TransUnion LLC or Equifax Inc. – or pay a fee to monitor it online. Keeping close tabs on your credit score is a good idea in an era when sensitive data can be obtained over the Internet.

“Internet fraud is a vast problem now,” says corporal Louis Robertson, with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) criminal intelligence unit. “Online shopping and online business are part of our day to day habits now.”

Identity theft – a growing problem

Such habits leave Canadians open to identity theft, he adds. There were 14,242 victims of ID theft in 2006, and collective losses totalled about $15.8 million – almost twice the 2005 loss of $8.6 million. Data for 2007 is not yet completely tabulated.

“The stats speak for themselves,” Robertson says. “People are losing money because they are not careful enough.”

He cites the example of a typical e-mail scam, where people are asked to provide personal information for a chance to win a big international lottery prize.

“Joe Citizen is not careful enough, sees that big lottery prize at the end of the line, and sends all of his information,” Robertson says.

Criminals are turning to invading home and office PCs because they can extract information from hapless consumers, and then successfully use that for profit, says Avivah Litan, a vice-president at Stamford, Ct.-based analyst firm Gartner Inc.

“It’s much harder to go into a bank and hold up tellers, while it is much easier to put a piece of software on a computer the user isn’t even aware of.”

The black market for stolen personal information is thriving, Litan adds.

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