Andrew Gilligan's "Gilligan on Monday" column in the Evening Standard seems to take weeks or months to appear in their online archives e.g. his article back in March about the saga documented by the Yorkshire Ranter blog regarding Viktor Bout, the illegal gun running airline operator, is now online, but was not for at least a couple of weeks after publication.
Today's two page article is illustrated by a large burning ID Card colour photo from the NO2ID demonstration outside the David Blunkett / IPPR event last November,
[captioned: "Burning issue: to try to stifle protests over their plans for identity cards, Tony Blair and Charles Clarke (pictured below) have relied on statistics that seem to bear little relation to reality],
another colour photo of Charles Clarke looking mean and shifty, and a black and white still from the Alistair McGowan Capital One credit card "identity theft" scaremongering ad campaign. Capital One have been spamming potential customers with junk mail for years, so one has to be sceptical about their attitude to data privacy and security.
Debunking the "£1.3 billion a year identity theft figure " has been done before, by the Law Society and even by Spy Blog:
However, Andrew Gilligan has the resources to get quotes and comments from most of the industries or departments which contributed guesstimates to the Cabinet Office document " Identity Fraud - a study" published in July 2002 (241kb .pdf file) which the Home Office has been shamelessly hyping ever since, without commissioning any updated guesses or actual quantitative research themselves in the intervening period.
It is important that this article is more widely read outside of London, before the Second Reading of the Identity cards Bill on the 28th of this month i.e. in just over a week:
"Evening Standard, Monday 20th June 2005, page 16 & 17
Gilligan on Monday
Revealed: how Blair is playing the fear card
Thanks to a Government campaign and an over-the-top TV advert, we are being led to believe that we are all at the mercy of identity-theft fraudsters. But the £1.3 billion figures for Britain's 'fastest-growing crime' just don't add up.
In times past, the character we loved to hate from the TV adverts was no more sinister than Captain Birds Eye. Now, in a more fearful Britain, it's the Identity Thief. For the past four months, thanks to the credit-card company Capital One, this sinister, black clad figure has taken up seemingly permanent residency in the ad-breaks.
There he is in the back of a taxi, explaining how he's set up a mobile phone account in your name, used it to do some deals with the Russian mafia, and got you into trouble with Special Branch. That's him in a Vegas hotel suite. Hoovering up the champers and smirking that he's managed to travel the world as you.
There's only one problem with these spine-chilling depictions of what Capital One calls "the UK's fastest growing crime". As the company admitted to the Standard, they are "not based on reality". You don't need to hijack someone else's name to ring up the Mob: you can buy a pay-as-you-go phone without giving any name at all. And to travel the world, you need something called a passport, which is issued only after quite stringent checks.
"Identity Theft", mainly involving credit fraudulently taken out in your name, is indisputably real, and thousands of real people do fall victim to it every year. Some suffer serious inconvenience, and a tiny minority suffer actual financial loss. (The vast majority of losses are fully refunded to the victim - not something the adverts bother to tell you). But the problem is currently being played up wildly out of proportion to its seriousness. Identity theft is not, in fact, the UK's fastest growing crime. But it is one of the UK's fastest-growing areas of hype.
"We cannot stand still in the knowledge of the threats we all face from identity fraud," said the Home Office minister Baroness Scotland.
"Estimates show that it takes the average victim of identity theft 300 hours to put their records straight," said her former colleague, Beverly Hughes. The Home Secretary Charles Clarke, has said many times in recent months that ID fraud "now costs the UK more than £1.3 billion every year"
Last month, that well-known master of understatement, the Prime Minister, casually upped the figure by a billion or two, telling MPs that "abuse of identity costs this country billions of pounds a year".
It is not difficult to understand why ministers have seized on this alleged epeidemic with such relish. Exactly like Capital One, they've got a piece of plastic which they badly want to flog us. The Identity Cards Bill is about to start its journey through Parliament. the terrorism and illegal immigration justifications for this hugely controversial scheme have started to unravel (the cards will not cover visitors or new entrants to the country, nor will they pick up terrorists already resident here).
But at least identity fraud might seem like a cast-iron problem that the cards could actually tackle. According to press reports, ministers are preparing to make it their principal justification.
Over the past six months, all the Government's statistics and claims - the £1.3 billion cost, the 300 hours to fix your records, the fastest-growing crime - have been repeated in good faith, dozens of times by newspapers and broadcasters throughout the country. Unfortunately every single one of them can be shown to be false.
The £1.3 billion figure comes from a Cabinet Office study in 2002, still the most recent and current research on the problem. Annex B of the study, towards the back, shows how the numbers were totted up.
According to the report, £370 million of the total is shown as reported by APACS, the bank clearing service for plastic cards and cheques. APACS says its real figure for identity fraud on plastic cards in 2002 was actually only £20.6 million - little more than a twentieth of the amount claimed by the Government. Even last year, it says, the figure was only £36.9 million.
"Their definition of identity theft clearly differs from our definition," said Mark Bowerman, spokesman for APACS. "Our interpretation is that ID theft must mean actual theft of an identity, and not just theft of, for example, a card."
A further £250 million of the ID fraud is shown as occurring in the insurance industry - an astonishing quarter of total losses.
"I'm not sure where that figure comes from. It's not from us. I'm not sure where they make that connection," says a puzzled Malcolm Tarling, spokesman for the Association of British Insurers. "Insurance fraud tends to be people claiming in their real names for false losses. ID fraud is not a particularly big problem in the insurance sector."
Then, £215 million is shown as due to a complicated scam called "missing trader intra-community" (MITC) fraud". This involved goods being shifted between various EU countries to avoid paying VAT. But Paul Matthews, a spokesman for Customs and Excise, which polices the VAT system says: "We wouldn't normally describe MITC fraud as ID fraud."
Another figure, £395 million, is shown as due to money-laundering. Again, says Mr Matthews: "Not all money-laundering is ID fraud. It can be as straightforward as somebody investing the money in a business, or a property, or whatever. I haven't found anything to source that particular figure in that report. It's difficult to see where they've got it from."
Yet another sum, £62.5 million is shown as reported by CIFAS, the main fraud policeman for the credit industry. CIFAS say this figure does seem about right, but says there is likely to be "some double counting" with the APACS figure.
A further £36 million is shown as the cost to the immigration service of processing immigrants arriving in the country with false documents - something which is, of course, not a fraud at all.
Stripping out all the mis-directions, exaggerations and distortions, we are left with a few genuine items - £35 million of identity-related benefit fraud (one per cent of the total of all benefit fraud) and less than £1 million due to "NHS tourism", foreigners claiming free treatment they're not entitled to. Both of these will be underestimates, but not vastly so. And thus the Government's supposed £1.3 billion tally of identity fraud falls to no more than £150 million, just over a tenth of the claimed figure.
Even if identity cards were able to end all those frauds - something that even the Government does not claim - the cost of setting up the cards is estimated by the Home Office itself at a minimum of £5.8 billion and the annual running cost at £85 million a year. The sums, in short, do not add up.
But, of course, the Cabinet Office report is three years old and ID fraud is the "fastest-growing crime in Britain" - isn't it ?
It's certainly true that it soared in the early years of this decade, and those are the numbers that tend to get quoted. But the latest figures from CIFAS, covering credit and credit-card fraud show that cases of classic ID theft - where someone is a victim of impersonation - are now actually falling. And the rise in the other type of ID fraud, where a false identity is created, has levelled off dramatically.
"As a proportion of plastic-card fraud, it's quite a small problem," says Beverly Young, head of training and compliance at CIFAS. (About 7 per cent of the total, in fact.) "There are indications of progress. We shouldn't be complacent, but it's pretty encouraging. Consumers are getting more aware of the problem and that has had an impact."
And what of the Home Office minister's extraordinary claims that it will take the "average victim" of ID theft 300 hours - an astonishing eight-and-a-half full-time working weeks to sort out his credit rating ?
What CIFAS actually says is that this applies only to a tiny minority of "the most severe cases", where there has been a total identity hijack involving perhaps 20 or 30 lenders. The Home Office has since quietly amended its claim, but the original mis-statement is still being quoted by newspapers and companies, including Capital One, to this day.
Perhaps influenced by these distortions, CIFAS, once a leading supporter of ID cards, now seem to have turned rather lukewarm about the Government's grand design. "It's very hard to say that ID cards will prevent identity theft," says Young. "It could have some benefits - that's as far as we'll go."
However, if you are worried about identity theft, there are rather more effective and cheaper safeguards than an ID card. For £11.75 you can ask CIFAS for "protective registration", which means they will carry out tough extra checks on any new application in your name. For £45, you can sign up for monitoring with a credit reference agency such as Experian, so you'll be alerted the moment anyone tries to apply for credit as you.
Identity fraud, it seems clear, has become yet another part of the Government's now time-honoured practice of the stoking of fear. Just as with weapons of mass destruction or ricin plots, we have seen the same lethal combination of a genuine (but exaggerated) threat, dodgy data, credulous journalists and a sinister new buzzword to describe things that have been going on for years.
ID fraud most certainly exists. But political fraud also comes into it."