Andrew Vine: How fraud is robbing me of peace of mind in our online world

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SOMEWHERE out there, a nasty, thieving toe-rag has been spending my hard-earned money.

He – or it may be a she – has somehow managed to get hold of my debit card details and merrily spent just shy of £300 on online gaming.

Doubtless whoever has stolen my details – and money – would have gone on to blow a lot more had I not noticed a gaping hole in my account while drawing some cash out and alerted the bank.

But it was pure chance that the fraud was spotted within three days. Had I not gone to the cash machine that day, the online crook could have emptied the account, with the consequence that I would have defaulted on the mortgage payment and all the other direct debits that go out every month.

In fairness, the bank has been very good. It killed the card so it cannot be used again, and refunded my £300. The matter-of-factness with which the fraud was dealt with suggested that mine was one among very many similar calls the staff had taken that day.

Nevertheless, sorting everything out has been a pain, taking up a day that should have been spent working.

It’s possible that it’s not only that particular account which has been compromised. The details of the others I have might have been stolen, too. So credit card providers have been informed, and those accounts blocked as well.

Which leaves me no means of paying for anything other than in cash until new cards are issued, and that means I’ve had to draw money out of my savings to tide me over.

But the really worrying thing is that the fraud could be the first indication that my identity has been stolen.

That has happened to 89,000 British people in the first six months of this year, a record number, and an increase of five per cent on 2016, according to the anti-fraud agency Cifas.

I might be one of them, and the thought of that is nagging away at me.

Is there now a cloned Andrew Vine busily applying for credit cards or loans? Will the first I know of it be a bill through the post for a spending spree by a fraudster in my name?

And if that happens, am I liable to pay it? I just don’t know. All I can do is wait, and monitor my accounts on a daily basis.

I’m feeling a curious mix of emotions. Worry that this might be the opening act of worse to come, anger at the theft, but also helplessness at somebody being able to reach into my life with impunity and taking what they like without me being able to stop them.

The chances of catching whoever defrauded my account are nil. A policeman friend who I turned to for advice says that even if I reported the theft, there is no trail to lead the law to the culprit.

It’s quite possible that they are not in Britain, or even Europe, and my details have been sold on the dark, criminal part of the internet as part of a huge batch of other stolen accounts.

So how has it happened? I’ve racked my brains over whether I might have inadvertently given something away online.

I’m pretty internet-savvy, have up-to-date security software, don’t open suspicious email attachments, and mostly use the same few reputable online retail giants that I’ve dealt with for years without any problems.

Or maybe the theft happened during everyday face-to-face transactions with the debit card, and I’ve gone through everything over the past month or so.

A mundane lot they are. A few supermarket shops where petrol has also been bought and some purchases from independent retailers whom I know well, and have not the slightest qualm about their honesty.

But the theft may not have been recent. The details may have been compromised months, or even years, ago in some long-forgotten transaction and only now has my account passed into the online fraudster’s hands.

My hunch is that the theft has taken place online, simply because, like everybody else, that is where most of my financial transactions now take place.

The local branch of my bank has shut, and I followed its encouragement to go online instead. Telephone, broadband, energy suppliers and insurers for both car and house have pushed me the same way.

And that has made me – and a lot of other people – blasé about using the debit and credit cards online. Because banks, telephone and power companies are secure and honest in my online transactions with them, I’ve been lulled into the assumption that other traders are too.

That’s a risky – and potentially costly – assumption to make. It’s a dream scenario for fraudsters electronically peering over our shoulders as we blithely tap card numbers into our phones or tablets, a nation of shoppers issuing an open invitation to them to rob us blind.