Document fraud, identity theft and cybercrime is quickly shaping to be the new criminal landscape, one in which the perception of being tracked and caught is different to more traditional, physical crimes. A lack of interaction between criminal and victim adds to the perception of document fraud being a ‘victimless crime’ in which no physical property is stolen and no force used. Nothing could be further from the truth. In skilled criminal hands, the theft of a single valuable document can contain enough personal information to unlock a victim’s entire life. Email accounts can be accessed and changed, new lines of credit applied for and maxed out, phone SIM cards hijacked or erased, and vehicle details tampered with. These are far from ‘victimless’ crimes. The simple act of a document containing detailed personal information falling into the wrong hands can have devastating and far-reaching repercussions. Encased in this notion that document fraud is a ‘soft crime’ and that criminal elements are ahead of law enforcement in this new criminal frontier, greater numbers of criminals, both individuals and syndicates, are expanding their reach, making the task of securing your documented life more important than ever. After a time lurking in the shadows, the subject of document theft and its related crimes have been firmly thrust into the media spotlight over the past year. It is important to understand how simple the process is from when everyday documents are stolen to having serious damage done to your digital identity. Shredding documents once they are no longer required should be a basic step for securing personal information for anyone serious about securing their identity.

Fraud in the Media One recent case in Sydney involved the use of stolen passports. A 24-year old man was arrested after using altered Australian and Indonesian passports to withdraw money from several bank accounts over the course of one day. The amount he managed to withdraw was a staggering $300,000. The head of the NSW Fraud and Cybercrime Squad, Detective Superintendent Arthur Katsogiannis, said that the man was a member of a larger syndicate specialising in document fraud. He said his squad and other elements of law enforcement were dedicated to stopping the rising tide of identity crime. “We will continue to work closely with our law enforcement colleagues to combat this type of activity and reduce financial and emotional distress to individuals.” Detective Superintendent Katsogiannis was also part of a joint task force that smashed an international identity-theft ring accused of making thousands of fake driver’s licences to fraudulently obtain loans and credit cards and paying for domestic flights. The task force was alerted to the presence of the gang after detecting a package from China containing 5000 fake NSW driver’s licence holograms. The fake licences were used to obtain Medicare and credit cards before money was stolen from financial institutions. Once the syndicate was arrested, police found 60 mobile phones, computers, and a wealth of identity fraud documents including pay slips, bank statements, fake identity paperwork and card making templates. Detective Superintendent Katsogiannis said, “Identity theft posed the greatest threat to law enforcement in the 21st century and had key links to people-smuggling and money laundering.”

Devastating Consequences While it’s easy to be distracted by the glamour of large law enforcement taskforces breaking up international crime syndicates, it’s easy to forget that many identity theft cases affect individuals who have had a single document stolen. Many identity theft victims don’t realise something is wrong until it is too late. This was the case for Paula Mills from Sydney who was a victim of the rising trend of mail theft from apartment buildings. Victims are often left in shock and confusion that the simple theft of mail can result in a ruined credit history and years of struggle to rebuild their identity. Paula didn’t realise there was a problem until her mobile phone lost its signal. Upon speaking to Optus it was discovered a man had obtained a new SIM, locking her out of her account in the process. Once she had regained control of her phone, a second person then accessed her phone once more, this time simply by calling Optus and passing a simple identity check. Then events took a turn for the worse. Paula began receiving text messages providing bank pin numbers for transaction authorisations. She did the right thing, contacting her bank who became frustratingly slow to respond. In the three days, it took for her bank to suspend her account, $18,000 had been withdrawn from her savings. Optus claimed the man who altered her SIM details provided the necessary identity authorisation to meet their criteria, opening up the possibility that the perpetrator had accessed personal details from other areas of her life. Many details required for over the phone identity checks can be found on a phone bill, and a person’s date of birth is readily available on a Facebook page. Pia Cunningham from Strata Title Management said mail theft complaints from apartment blocks had risen four-fold in the past two years. Neil Mitchelhill, a former director at Crime Stoppers NSW said basic security measures went a long way to protecting your identity. He cited lockable mailboxes, a lockbox for storing valuable documents such as passports and shredding documents to prevent theft as the cornerstones of identity theft prevention. Mr Mitchelhill said, “Once your identity has been stolen it’s next to impossible to get it back. It will impact the possibility of buying a home or starting a business because how can you prove the difference between yourself and someone else?” “Victims of identity theft can struggle for years,” he said, “and many don’t fully recover from the implications to their credit history.” So with document fraud and identity theft becoming the new battleground for law enforcement agencies, the message is clear. Taking precautions such as shredding documents and securing valuable documents in a home safe are fundamental to protecting your identity and avoiding potentially irreparable damage to your personal finances.