OUR love of online shopping and social media is making Australians unwitting pawns in the global fraud marketplace.
That's just one of the findings of recent research by credit analysts Veda in time for National Identity Fraud Awareness Week, which runs from 11-17 October.
Veda's study dished up some disturbing statistics. In particular, fraudulent credit applications involving identity theft have soared 59% in the past two years in Australia alone.
If you're not familiar with the term, identity theft involves pretending to be someone else in order to access their bank accounts, use their credit card details to make purchases or take out loans in the victim's name.
Crims can assume your identity in a variety of ways, from simple means like stealing mail or rummaging through garbage for bank statements. Or with more sophisticated measures such as skimming debit cards at ATMs or hacking computers and even mobile phones.
According to Veda, one in four Australians - that's almost four million of us (and it includes me), have been victims of identity theft. Yet people often only become aware their identity has been stolen when they check bank statements and discover unfamiliar or unauthorised transactions.
Despite the financial fallout that can accompany identity theft, our own behavior could be contributing to the risk of getting stung by cyber fraud.
While Veda found 54% of Australians are concerned about identify theft, less than half (44%) of us regularly change our online passwords. Only around 60% of us shop on secure web sites (as indicated by 'https') when transacting online. One in three (32%) people publish their full date of birth on social media profiles even though this is a key piece of information used to verify a person's identity.
Taking simple steps like updating anti-virus software, changing passwords, and not revealing too many personal details online can go a long way to preventing you becoming a victim of online fraud. And don't use passwords that include your birthday, parts of your street address, family members or the pet's name. These are catnip to online fraudsters.
Other useful precautions include using a secure mailbox, or arranging for mail to be held at your post office if you're going away over the holiday period.
It's also worth checking your credit record at least annually as this will show applications for credit made in your name. Credit reference agencies like D&B, Veda and Experian usually provide one free copy of your credit report each year.
For more tips on protecting your identity take a look at the government's Scamwatch site.
Paul Clitheroe is a founding director of financial planning firm ipac, Chairman of the Australian Government Financial Literacy Board and chief commentator for Money Magazine.