As a professional comedian Bennett Arron gets paid to see the funny side of things, but a run-in with identity thieves in the 1990s had him far from laughing.
It all began with a postcard sent out by a home shopping firm to his old address, then before long he owed thousands of pounds to mobile phone companies, catalogue firms and department stores.
Recounting the tale at AusCERT 2011 on the Gold Coast, Arron said the scale of the incident hit home when he and his wife applied for a mortgage on a house in London only to receive a letter from their bank saying he owed outstanding debts.
“I knew it wasn’t me so I contacted my bank and they said `we can’t give you anymore information’,” Arron said. After discovering that someone using his name had set up two accounts with a mobile phone company, an account with Harrods department store and than racked up the debt, he passed the information on to the police. “Police didn’t know about identity theft at the time,” he said. “I couldn’t open a bank account [because of the debt]. We couldn’t get the mortgage so the house was sold to someone else.
“I was spending every moment to clear my name. It was very stressful and time consuming, and I couldn’t work. No money was coming in and we were left with no money.”
After some investigation, Arron managed to find the mobile phone shop who had sold the impostor two phones.
“I got a copy of the [mobile phone] contract but it didn’t give me any more information until I saw the address, which turned out to be my previous address,” he said. “My landlord rented it out to a Nigerian guy who stayed for six months, paid one month’s rent and trashed the place.”
It turned out the Nigerian fraudster had received a post card addressed to Arron from a home shopping company called Littlewoods Retail.
“Believe it or not, the home shopping company sent this post card out for people to buy goods with,” he said. “He had ticked yes to buy something and an order form arrived."
With that account, the Nigerian used it as proof of identification to set up two phone accounts and the Harrods account.
“ I was furious and wrote to the companies asking for compensation,” Arron said. “They all wrote back and said `it was in good faith’. However, Littlewoods stopped sending out post cards”.
Another blow followed. Despite giving police the fraudster's address, it took them three months to go around with a search warrant - by which time the fraudster had vanished.
He decided to put the “whole thing behind him” but in 2009 identity theft was on the rise in the UK.
Arron was asked to make a television documentary called How to steal an Identity, and managed to steal the identity of former home secretary ,Charles Clark, who was at the time bringing out ID cards.
“I applied online to get a birth certificate in the name of Charles Clark. Then I used this to get a drivers’ licence with a photo ID. I even wrote to a number of associations such as the police and House of Parliament about what I had done but no one was interested.”
Eventually he was arrested on suspicion of obtaining a drivers’ licence in the name of Clark by the police.
Despite spending a night in jail, Arron said the upshot was that the law to obtain drivers licences was changed.
“A birth certificate is no proof,” he said. “You now have to have a passport.”
However, Arron is still concerned about the policies of companies such as Harrods.
“Nothing tangible has happened since than and I think the companies need to stop making it so easy for people to set up accounts,” he said. “They don’t realise the impact that identity fraud can have.”
Hamish Barwick travelled to AusCERT 2011 as a guest of AusCERT Got a security tip-off? Contact Hamish Barwick at hamish_barwick at idg.com.au
Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick
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