“It just seemed to go on and on, it’s just been really upsetting.” Gemma Combellack, 30, is talking about her six month fight to reclaim her identity after it was stolen by criminals last year.
She discovered she’d become a victim of ID theft when she was refused a mortgage over a payday loan in her name that she knew nothing about.
A bank account had also been opened by fraudsters using her identity.
“I’ve been in tears at my desk at work in terms of the impact it’s had on me and my stress levels.
“At the time it made me so angry, the fact that we were having to go through all this trauma and stress and no one could give me answer.
“It’s just that it was so out of our control and that’s the most frustrating thing about it.”
Gemma’s not alone. Last year ID theft happened more than 223,000 times, up 18% on the year before, according to Cifas, the counter fraud organisation which runs the National Fraud Database and works with police and financial institutions to try to tackle fraud.
Its chief executive, Mike Haley, says there are a number of factors fuelling that rise.
“Criminals are using more sophisticated methods, more of us are doing more things online and we’re all using cash less which is something fraudsters are able to exploit.
“Criminals are targeting ID fraud as a lucrative business model and they’re getting sophisticated in their use of social engineering [on the phone, text messages or on social media] which involves persuading people to give up personal information,” Mr Haley said.
Combined with large scale data breaches and data theft from companies and organisations, “and you have the raw ingredients [for ID theft],” he added.
Very often criminals carrying out these attacks on people in the UK aren’t even based here. “This can all be done at a distance,” he said. “Now you can sit behind a computer anywhere in the world and commit crime on a vast scale.”
Also, there is very little risk of getting caught as “criminals are able to use the anonymity of the internet,” he said.
The rise in ID theft
For Gemma, the personal cost of having her identity stolen ran into thousands of pounds. “In terms of the financial implications we weren’t able to get a mortgage and therefore had to continue to pay rent on our property for six months.
“We’d also instructed a solicitor and had the flat valued so, overall, the costs are looking at the £10,000 mark.
“It just feels like I haven’t progressed in nine months. It feels like we’ve just been really financially hit by something that was completely out of our hands, and it just seems really unfair.”
Gemma’s also worried about her financial future.
“If it can happen once it can happen again,” she said. “It’s made me really, really nervous about it happening again because there are no signs, you don’t know it’s happening to you.”
Mike Haley says he expects the number of ID thefts to be even higher this year and next as criminals look to exploit people’s vulnerabilities during the coronavirus pandemic.
He said: “During this period criminals haven’t taken a holiday, they’ve been using this time to harvest information.
“They’ve been upping their activity to capitalise on the crisis, we all have our guard down because, understandably, we’re all worried about other things.
The advice from experts is always avoid clicking on links or replying to text messages and phone calls that come out of the blue.
There is also a national campaign trying to raise awareness of fraud and advice for people on how they can try to help themselves to avoid becoming a victim.