Child benefit breach leaves millions exposed to identity fraud

Big decision

It has emerged today that every adult that receives child benefit in Britain has had their identity compromised. If you are one of these, you need to take immediate precautions to protect yourself against identity fraud. Here are some tips on how to safeguard your identity.

Last month we reported that about 140,000 British consumers fall victim to identity fraud each year, costing the economy an estimated £1.7 billion. However, today's news that the Child Benefit Agency has lost the personal details of every parent who receives child benefit, 25 million people, could take these figures to a whole new level.

The information, which was stored on two discs, includes the names, addresses, dates of birth, national insurance numbers, child benefit numbers and bank account numbers of every individual. Because the benefit is usually taken in the mother's name it is women who are most at risk in this case.

Child benefit is available to the parents of every child in the UK under 16. Older children in full-time education are also eligible.

It is not yet clear how or why the two discs have disappeared. What is certain is that if the discs get into the wrong hands, 25 million Britons are at a serious risk of falling victim to identity fraud.

This is just the latest in a spate of data breaches at a number of major companies recently. Not surprisingly, consumer confidence in major institutions' ability to keep personal information safe is dwindling fast.

The Canvasse Opinion survey found that 34% of consumers do not trust insurance companies, 33% think internet retailers are not secure and 32% believe that the government cannot be trusted to keep our identities safe.

If you were affected by this latest breach, and there is a very strong possibility that you were, you need to take steps to prevent identity fraud immediately. Here are some quick tips:

Bank accounts

Keep a close eye on all your bank and credit card accounts. With your account data and basic personal information, criminals could try to get hold of your money. If you do not already have internet or telephone banking you should consider setting it up so you can check transactions on a daily basis. If you notice anything unfamiliar or suspicious, contact your bank immediately.

Credit report

You can nip potentially heavy financial losses at the bud with regular checks on your credit report. Your Child Benefit Agency records contain enough information for someone to apply for credit in your name. However, any applications for credit in your name will quickly show up on your credit report so you can put a stop to it.

Phishing

Beware of any emails claiming to be from your bank or credit card company, especially if they ask for personal information. A bank will never approach you for information like this. In fact, you should exercise the same vigilance when it comes to phone calls, letters and approaches on the street.

Social networking

Be careful of the information you post on sites like Facebook and MySpace. It can be easy to inadvertently publish an answer to a security question such as your pet's name or your mother's maiden name.

Passwords

Given the level of detail contained in the discs lost by the Child Benefit Agency, it would be a good idea to review all your passwords for bank accounts, credit cards, PayPal and even your email account. Even if these passwords do not relate to the data held by the Child Benefit Agency, it is a good idea to review them to make sure they are secure. There are many guides to be found online on how to choose secure passwords.

These are just a few of the quick, basic steps you can take to safeguard your identity immediately. However, we recommend that you come up with a long-term plan or even take out identity fraud insurance. See our earlier identity fraud articles Identity fraud: Are you protected? and A closer look at identity fraud for more detailed advice.

Revenue and Customs has set up a Child Benefit Helpline on 0845 302 1444 if you want more details.

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