Something that only happens in Hollywood movies or a genuine threat to South African consumers? If recent statistics are anything to go by, identity theft in South Africa and the theft of personal information is more fact than fiction. Not only have reported incidents increased by 200% over the last six years, but it also costs the economy a staggering loss of R1 billion annually.

What is Identity Theft?

According to Adv. Jackie Nagtegaal, Managing Director at LAW FOR ALL, identity theft in South Africa occurs when criminals steal personal information for their benefit. “The criminal fraudulently assumes the victim’s identity to obtain credit, loans or other benefits in the victim’s name, often resulting in a mountain of debt.” Apart from the financial benefits, criminals often steal another’s identity to hide their own. The “new” identity is then used to:

  • obtain employment as a foreign citizen;
  • claim social grants;
  • escape criminal prosecution; or to
  • claim life insurance policy benefits.

How is personal information obtained?

Criminals usually obtain private information such as ID numbers, banking and card details, home or postal addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses and signatures through practices that range from basic to sophisticated, warns Nagtegaal. Some techniques used include:

  • Intercepting or diverting bank transactions;
  • Obtaining personal information via social media;
  • Hacking into computers or email accounts;
  • Theft of ID documents and bank cards out of a purse/wallet;
  • Theft of account statements in the post;
  • Obtaining confidential mail in the garbage; and
  • Telephonic impersonation and encouragement to disclose or update information.

Techniques such as phishing and pharming have increasingly become popular amongst cybercriminals. Phishing is used to obtain a victim’s usernames and passwords. Usually, an email will be sent that appears to be from a trustworthy entity such as a bank, containing a link to a bogus webpage where personal and financial information is updated and collected. Pharming, on the other hand, is a more advanced technique used by hackers who obtain access to a server and redirect traffic to bogus web pages to get confidential information. 

Steps to take if you realise your identity has been stolen.

Nine out of ten times, consumers are unaware that their personal information has been jeopardised. Often the breach of information only comes to light years later when a victim’s credit application is declined by a financial institution, an angry vendor requests payment of arrear accounts or civil claims are instituted. Identity theft could have an adverse effect on a consumer’s credit profile and could be difficult to prove, but as soon as it comes to light, it is essential that the victim takes the necessary steps to avoid further loss. Here’s what to do should you fall victim:

Step 1: Gather as much evidence and information as possible.

This will help the police with their investigation. Ask the companies where your ID was used for a copy of the documents submitted by the thief.

Step 2: Report the matter to the SAPS and SAFPS.

Ask the police for the case number and a copy of the report. The bank or other financial institutions may request you to submit a copy. It’s also a good idea to take down the name and contact details of the assisting police officer.

Step 3: Inform the credit bureaus of the fraudulent activity.

If you haven’t already, obtain a credit report to see which creditors have blacklisted you.

Step 4: Contact your bank.

Close existing and open new bank accounts. Remember to create new PIN numbers and passwords.

Step 5: Lodge a query with all creditors.

Confirm whether any activity has taken place in your name. Your accounts may have to be closed. Refer any disputes with creditors regarding transactions in your name to the Credit Ombudsman.

Prosecution and Punishment for Identity Theft in South Africa

South Africa does not have specific legislation that prosecutes criminals for Identity Theft crimes. “Thieves are usually charged with common law crimes such as fraud or forgery and first-time offenders could face up to 15 years in prison where amounts involved exceed R500 000. Subsequent offenders could face punishment of 20 to 25 years or more” confirms Nagtegaal.

Tips protect your personal information:

  1. Always keep your ID and bank cards in a safe place.
  2. When drawing money at an ATM be aware of your environment and protect your PIN.
  3. Activate the SMS notification function on your bank account to inform you of any account activity.
  4. Shred documents, such as bank statements, that contain personal information.
  5. Be cautious when providing personal information via the internet or social media.
  6. Do not provide personal information such as credit card information telephonically.
  7. Obtain a credit report every year.

We’ve got your back!

LAW FOR ALL’s experienced lawyers can provide legal advice and guidance on matters relating to identity theft. Be to have a look at LAW FOR ALL’s comprehensive policies. Sign up today!