• The imitation game

    Fraudsters constantly change their strategies for identity theft. Silke Colquhoun finds out how to outsmart them
    The imitation game

    W e’re often warned about the risks associated with selfies – for example, posting those exotic holiday photos on social media (this could lead potential burglars to your unoccupied home) or posing on Instagram with that new diploma, driver’s licence or airline ticket (this could enable stalkers to fraudulently use your personal information). But now we’re learning that uploading a selfie can actually be a good thing. When done correctly, it can minimise the risk of identity theft – an ancient ploy where an imposter pretends to be someone else, usually for their own material gain and at the expense of their victim.

    In May this year, First National Bank launched a banking app that allows South Africans to open or switch their bank accounts by simply taking a photo of themselves on their smartphone. The ‘Switch with a Selfie’ service connects directly to the Department of Home Affairs, which verifies the personal information and biometric facial recognition data from the image. Google Maps also validates the address on record against the GPS coordinates of the selfie.

    While this may seem futuristic, biometric technology is already becoming mainstream in Africa’s banking sector. Capitec was the first local bank to introduce fingerprint verification in 2012, partnering with Home Affairs to eliminate paperwork for its 10 million clients. Another biometric application that is expected to grow is voice recognition.

    ‘Identification through biometrics is accepted as a best practice globally. It’s far better than using a physical document for identification purposes, as a document can be forged,’ says Kalyani Pillay, CEO of the South African Banking Risk Information Centre (Sabric). This non-profit organisation, formed by the country’s four major banks, provides tips and insights into identity theft and the latest financial scams. Consumers are advised to make it difficult for strangers to access their personal information (from documents such as one’s ID, passport, driver’s licence, salary advice, municipal bills or bank statements) to prevent being impersonated. Staying up to date with online scams is also crucial. ‘Criminals are always adjusting their tactics to take advantage of innovations in the banking landscape,’ says Pillay.

    Silent crime

    The rise in electronic transactions has opened up new avenues for stealing someone’s identity and fleecing them. Credit card fraud alone cost South Africa R436.7 million in 2017, according to Sabric. The majority of this relates to ‘card not present’ fraud, where the criminal impersonates the cardholder to illegally make transactions and purchases without the presence of a card being necessary. This often results in massive cellphone or data debt and unauthorised online shopping sprees. Many criminals open bank accounts, apply for cash loans, get a home bond, car finance or government grant in their victim’s name. Identity theft also plays a role in money laundering, illegal immigration and terrorism. ‘Anyone can fall victim to identity theft. Perpetrators target their victims indiscriminately to make easy money at every opportunity,’ warns Pillay.

    Some high-profile victims include French president Emmanuel Macron, Kim Kardashian and even tech gurus such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. But it’s not only the rich and famous at risk. According to Pillay, even destitute people without any personal income need to protect their identity: ‘Anybody’s personal information can be used by criminals to assume their identity and acquire retail or bank accounts, or even defraud their insurance, medical aid and Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF).

    ‘In some instances they impersonate victims, use social engineering to access bank details and then transact on their accounts. In other instances, criminals use the profiles of their victims to open accounts that they then control and use to launder proceeds of crime,’ says Pillay.

    The trouble is that this can go undetected for months, even years. Victims often only notice identity theft when they receive invoices or debt-collection demands for accounts they haven’t opened. Or they realise they’re blacklisted when they apply for credit. Victims won’t be able to get a loan or a new job. They will be hounded by debt collectors, stopped at airports and possibly even criminally prosecuted – although they are not at fault.

    Protect yourself

    There are ground rules to prevent such financial and emotional upheavals. ‘Treat your ID book and driver’s licence like cash; don’t leave them lying around the house or in the car,’ says Manie van Schalkwyk, executive director of the South African Fraud Prevention Service (SAFPS). ‘Shred documents before tossing them in the bin and clear mailboxes regularly, particularly if you live in a housing complex where there are multiple mailboxes.’ When using passwords for banking or online transactions, create strong ones (including numbers, and lower- and uppercase letters) and change them regularly. Use different passwords and pins for each account. Don’t disclose them to anyone. This also applies to phishing: Don’t fall for SMS or email requests to update account details, passwords or one-time pins. In the same vein, be aware of vishing, where a fake bank official calls you, trying to extract confidential information over the phone.

    And then there’s identity theft via social media. Pillay warns that fraudsters befriend people online ‘for the sole purpose of defrauding’ them. She advises to change privacy settings to the highest security level to prevent any personal information falling into the wrong hands. Sabric gives detailed advice on these and other identity theft-related scams on its website (sabric.co.za).

    Clearing your name

    SAFPS operates two databases (‘confirmed ID fraud’ and ‘fraud victims’) for its members, which include banks, finance providers, retailers, insurers and phone companies. This enables the flagging and prevention of identity theft, which saved the banks that are members of the SAFPS R2.2 billion in 2017 alone. The total database encompasses more than 115 000 records, with victim listings up by 52% and fraud by 56% in the same year.

    A third database for ‘protective registration’ – which increased by 75% during 2017 – helps people whose personal information has been compromised (through lost or stolen ID books, credit cards or other personal documents), but who aren’t victims yet.

    If you know you’ve been impersonated, Van Schalkwyk advises: ‘Don’t pay any debt in your name if it’s not yours. Victims of ID fraud sometimes pay, hoping it will end. But paying means acknowledging, which makes it hard to prove your innocence if the fraudulent spending continues.’ Instead, immediately contact the bank, service provider or retailer where the debt was accumulated. They’ll take you through their processes.

    Pillay says: ‘An investigation will also be conducted into the merits of the case, and the findings will determine the liability of parties involved.’ The best way to avoid identity fraud is to use layers of security – be it a selfie for biometric facial recognition, electronic one-time pins or frequently changing passwords. Ultimately, we all need to understand that sharing personal information could offer scammers the keys to our kingdom.


    Arm yourself against online

    ID fraud

    Don’t open attachments or follow links in unsolicited emails

    Check web addresses: The ‘s’ in https:// shows it’s secure

    Turn off the ‘save this password’ feature in your browser

    Avoid using public WiFi for online banking and shopping

    Sign up for real-time SMS/email alerts for bank account activity


    For free protective registration if your personal info has been compromised:
    SMS ‘Protectid’ to 43366, call 0860 101 248, or email [email protected]

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