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Theft in the internet age: losing your identity is no joke

Karl Quinn (SMH) | May 18, 2011
Bennett Arron and his heavily pregnant wife were on the brink of buying their first house when his bank sent a letter demanding he settle his outstanding bills. The trouble was, they weren't his bills.
Comedian Bennett Arron says his life was in limbo when someone stole his identity and ran up big bills.

Comedian Bennett Arron says his life was in limbo when someone stole his identity and ran up big bills. Photo: Steve Holland

Bennett Arron and his heavily pregnant wife were on the brink of buying their first house when his bank sent a letter demanding he settle his outstanding bills. The trouble was, they weren't his bills - they'd been run up over 18 months by someone pretending to be him. And so began his rapid descent into a financial hell he'd never even dreamt of.

"I couldn't get a mortgage, so we lost the house we were trying to buy, I wasn't working because I was spending all my time sorting this out, I couldn't get a credit card, I couldn't get loans, I couldn't even join my local gym because they wouldn't accept my direct debit, so it wasn't all bad news I suppose," says the Welsh stand-up comedian.

"We were in limbo, and all the money we'd saved to buy a house we had to use for day-to-day things, so we ended up having to move in with my parents because we had nothing. It was a very awful, stressful time."

Eventually, Arron found a revenge of sorts by turning his experiences into a documentary film that has, in turn, spun him a second career as a speaker at security gatherings worldwide.

This week, he has brought his tale to Australia as the keynote speaker at the AusCERT conference on the Gold Coast, which has brought together some of the country's foremost experts on crime in the digital age. And the picture they have contemplated is a sobering one.

"Organised crime has industrialised ID theft, and the engine that feeds it is the internet," says Graham Ingram, general manager of AusCERT, an independent security organisation based at the University of Queensland. "I don't think the criminals could have asked for anything better, really. All you have to do is look at Sony's recent PlayStation problem [in which millions of customer details were stolen] to see how big it is - and don't think for a moment that's an isolated case."

According to an Australian Bureau of Statistics report last year, more than 3 per cent of Australians were victims of identity fraud in the 12 months prior to the survey (conducted in 2007). More than half of those suffered financial loss, at a total estimated cost to the economy of almost $1 billion.

Bizarrely, identity theft is not in itself a crime in Australia, though the possession of equipment for creating false identities is.

"Usually the identity side of it is a means to an end," explains Detective Senior Sergeant Peter Endler of the Victoria Police fraud and extortion squad. "Generally anyone stealing identities is embarking on committing a fairly substantial crime, so there's always a bigger picture."

For the victim, though, the offence is unmistakably personal. "The police look upon identity theft as a victimless crime because nothing tangible is taken, but as far as I'm concerned having your identity taken is as bad as having anything taken," says Arron.

"It's you, it's your name, what else do you have? To find out someone else is using that, it's a horrible feeling."


 

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