MORE than $4 billion is stolen from Australians each year as poor protection of our personal details has let identity fraud flourish, new research reveals.
And as many as 500,000 people could have been victims of identity theft in the past 12 months alone - and many may not be aware of it.
Crime watchdogs urge people to get into the habit of shredding documents such as bills, bank accounts and expired credit cards, rather than throwing them into household and office rubbish, which is increasingly being sifted by criminals in search of key financial details.
Online and telephone credit card transactions should be closely monitored, while consumers also should be aware of the possibility that some out-of-the-way ATMs or vending machines could be fitted with a "skimmer" - a detachable electronic device that reads and stores the encoded information on a credit card when it is swiped through the machine.
A first-ever Australian Bureau of Statistics survey reveals that identity fraud is now the fastest-growing crime in the country.
The study found that while 87 per cent of Australians were concerned about identity fraud, about 75 per cent of them threw out enough personal information to put them at serious risk.
And many paid dearly for their mistakes.
Apart from having charges loaded on to their credit cards, some had false accounts opened in their names and loans taken out without their consent.
Some were even appointed directors of one or more shady companies.
David Mulholland, a spokesman for waste audit company Waste Min, said scores of personal details were regularly being uncovered in people's bins.
Crime Stoppers national chairman Peter Price said personal information such as date of birth, address, mother's maiden name and passwords were as valuable as money.
"Tax file numbers in particular are virtually the PIN numbers to our lives and can easily be used against people," Mr Price said.
"No one is immune - I have even had my credit card skimmed and had thousands of dollars of expenses racked up in Thailand, and I've never been there."
Crime Stoppers, the Australian Taxation Office, security experts Fellowes and credit check specialists Veda Advantage are launching National ID Fraud Awareness week, from October 13-17.
By Shannon Deery