Previously glossed over as a marginal issue, identity theft is becoming fairly common in Canada as well.
A recent cross-country survey reveals that nearly one in 15 Canadians (seven per cent) has been a victim of the crime and one in six – or 16 per cent – knows someone who has been victimized by ID thieves.
The poll – conducted by Montreal-based firm SOM (Survey, Opinion polls and Marketing) – was commissioned by Sigma Assistel , a Canadian telephone assistance company.
The survey questioned 1,510 individuals from across the country on their perceptions and experiences of identity-related crime.
The maximum margin of error was 2.6 per cent, according to SOM.
Identity theft occurs when somone uses another’s personal information, without the latter’s knowledge or consent, to commit a crime.
Commonly stolen identity “components” include: names, addresses, phone numbers, social insurance numbers, driver’s licenses, credit card and financial information or passports.
Information can be obtained either by physically stealing items such as ID cards and licenses or by digitally “lifting” the data from computers, cell phones, or electronic correspondence and transactions.
The frequent news reports about identity theft in Canada, indicate how common the problem is becoming, according to Pierre Julien, director of business development and marketing for Sigma Assistel.
Only five years ago, he said, such crimes were treated as “isolated incidents” but in the last two years there has been a rash of cases involving thousands, if not millions of victims.
He said some incidents that originate in the U.S. could have a significant impact on Canadians.
For instance, he cited last year’s security breach at the Massachusetts-based retailer TJX Maxx.
Canadians were among the four million customers whose credit card information was compromised.
“Everything that happens south of the border eventually comes north,” Julien said.
At least one Canadian analyst believes the volumes of personal data now carried about by individuals in various devices and products such as debit and credit cards compounds the problem of identity theft.
“Our phones, laptops and plastics act as gateways to huge amounts of personal data. Unfortunately these devices are not always adequately secured,” says Michelle Warren, analyst at consultancy firm Info-Tech Research Inc. in London, Ont.
Other findings of the survey revealed that 60 per cent of Canadians have taken measures to protect themselves against this sort of crime.
About 45 per cent said they have purchased a shredder, 30 per cent have installed home alarm systems, 30 per cent rent a safety-deposit box from financial institutions and 18 per cent have “made serious efforts” to get more information about preventing identity theft.
However, there’s also a significant number that aren’t taking steps to protect themselves from ID theft, the study indicates.
Those that refuse to take actions say “don’t feel the need” to guard themselves against ID theft (38 per cent), “don’t know how to seek protection” (28 per cent) or “don’t think it is possible to prevent the crime” (18 per cent).
Authorities say it is difficult to put an accurate dollar figure on the damages attributed to the crime.
However, Phone Busters, the anti-fraud organization run by the Ontario Provincial Police, reports that their call centre received at least 7,778 phone calls from identity theft victims last year.
Losses were estimated at around $16.3 million.
The situation has become serious enough for some insurance companies to offer identity theft coverage, according to Dennis Prouse, director of government relations for the Toronto-based Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC).
For instance, he said, some property insurers are offering the protection as “a complementary feature” or a low-cost add-on priced at about $30 per year.
Policies that include identity theft coverage will typically cover varying amounts of the cost the insured might incur in the event of identity fraud.
A wider range of Canadian companies have become concerned about the crime in recent years, says a privacy expert.
Financial institutions have been careful about the customer data they handle for years, according to John Beardwood, IT and privacy specialist at the Toronto-based law firm Fasken Martineau DuMaulin LLP.
“Today the health sector and the retail industry are paying more attention and employing similar strategies to safeguard client data,” Beardwood said.
He said earlier complacency can be blamed to the lack of adequate legislation such as stronger breach notification laws to compel organizations to protect individual personal information. Bearwood, a former chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s national privacy law section, noted though that the Federal Privacy Commission is seeking more ammunition to use against identity thieves.
In her submission last month before the Senate privacy and ethics committee, Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart sought provisions in the criminal code that would make it easier to prosecute identity thieves.
Bearwood noted that the criminal code provisions that address fraud, aren’t being used against identity theft, because prosecuting the latter requires proof of criminal intent.
American authorities appear to hold the lead in the battle against identity crime – a point Stoddart emphasized in her submission.
She noted that the U.S. has created a task force solely task to combat Identity theft.
Canada does not have a similar organization.