Identity theft on the rise in Jamaica
"Persons' lives will stop for a little while because they are unable to utilise their document until (PICA) can satisfactorily determine who the rightful owner is."
Several Jamaicans are having their lives placed on hold as their identities have been stolen by individuals, who use their birth certificates, passports, medical records, and other documents to create a new life for themselves, and in some cases, leave the country.
While chief executive officer of the Passport Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA), Andrew Wynter, was not able to say how many cases have been identified in recent times, he noted that 156 persons were arrested between 2016 and 2017 for passport infringements that included fraud.
"In many of the newer cases, it's persons who, through various means, obtained persons' identities because persons have now understood how to create an identity. So they know they have to get a birth certificate, they have to get a driver's licence, and they will produce a complete profile," he said.
Some persons have resorted to recreating new profiles to obtain a passport since additional security measures such as the implementation of face recognition software in 2016 has made it very difficult to manipulate a passport.
"Once they get sufficient information through some corrupt means, they are then able to go to one of the agencies and acquire documents. Those are the documents that they are going to be bringing to us to give us in an attempt to obtain a passport in your identity. We have had situations where persons have got it, gone away, and we are only hoping that they come back," Wynter told The Sunday Gleaner.
He said that PICA is now much more equipped to identity fraud, and for 2016 and 2017, the organisation sent more than 2,000 applications for further verification. Fines levelled on the more than 150 persons arrested over this period for passport infringements contributed some $18 million to the government coffers.
"It's when you now check with the source agencies, the RGD [Registrar General Department], the tax office, and they say no, that is fraudulent information, no such record exists, and based on the experience and knowledge of our customer service officers, they know once they see certain information, they know this document is fraudulent," said Wynter.
Director of passport services at PICA Amy Johnson-Lynch said identity theft is generally one of the main infringements committed.
"So you would find that a majority of the cases that we review and we send for investigation is with reference to multiple or double identities," said Johnson-Lynch.
"When we see two persons with the same identity, we are not, at the onset, going to determine that the identity belongs to Customer A as opposed to Customer B. A full investigation has to be carried out and so persons' lives will stop for a little while because they are unable to utilise their document until we can satisfactorily determine who the rightful owner is," she told The Sunday Gleaner.
Wynter said that most times, the identity theft is not noticed until individuals visit the PICA office.
"They are applying to renew their passports, and it is like almost bad luck because nearly every time they come to do it, they are in a rush. They have to go to school and now it's January and they need to go to school in February and they need the documents by this time," he said.
"We have seen some very unfortunate incidents, where persons when they (PICA officials) look and they say, 'Do you know the person?', they realise who stole their identity and their information," he said.
Given the fact that relatives or close associates are among those responsible for stealing identities, Wynter and Johnson-Lynch are cautioning Jamaicans to ensure that they secure their passports and other documents.
"We have had so many cases where persons leave their passports in their handbags and the car is broken into and all the documents are gone. That is a very common report," said Wynter.
"If you don't need to travel with your passport, don't travel with your passport. If you don't need to travel with your birth certificate in your handbag, don't do so. Keep them secure. Don't just leave them in a drawer that is accessible by everyone," warned Johnson Lynch.
She noted that the mobility of information has also made it easier for persons to steal the identity of others.
"Believe it or not, a lot of people take pictures and put postings on Facebook and post their private documents on Facebook, and various things, and send them out.
So somebody will tell you, 'Oh, just WhatsApp me a picture of your birth certificate', but when you take that picture and send it, that person might not be security conscious as you, and if that person's phone is hacked into, then they could have got a document that they could use," Wynter explained.
He said that PICA intends to dedicate some time to educating people about some of the issues coming before them.
"We are really planning now to go on an education campaign about passports and certain things that can affect passports and how you should care your passports," added Wynter.