<i>Illustration: Jim Pavlidis</i>

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Alexander MacDonald is Australia's most ruthless identity thief. An explosives expert and career armed robber, he did more than take his victim's name - he took his life.

While on the run from a Queensland prison he carried out seven bank armed robberies in three states before concocting a deadly and simple plan to rub out his past as if it was incriminating fingerprints.

He put an ad in the Herald Sun looking for a single man with no ties prepared to work on geological surveys in outback Australia.

More than 50 people applied but he selected Ron Williams, a divorcee with no close friends who had changed his name by deed poll 15 years earlier.

Helpfully, the prospective employee handed over his driver's licence and birth certificate as part of his job application.

He was about MacDonald's build and age, but more importantly Williams said no one would miss him in Melbourne if he went bush.

On their way to a non-existent campsite in remote Western Australia, Williams and his new ''boss'' stopped at the isolated Cheynes Beach to fish. It was there MacDonald shot and buried his victim in the hope he could bury his own criminal past. Using those few documents, he managed to acquire a passport, driver's licence, five credit cards, a Myer card, ambulance subscription and private health insurance as the new Ron Williams.

A year later when the impostor was finally arrested, dogged Victorian detective Allan ''Silver'' Birch asked, ''How would you assume the identity of a person who responds to an advert for employment.''

The suspect responded: ''You kill them.''

MacDonald had been seeking a new life but instead he was sentenced in a Perth court to life with a minimum of 25 years.

Two decades later identity fraud is the international organised crime growth product.

It is one of the few crimes where the offender and the victim often never meet and may not even be in the same country. And no longer is it only the unlucky and the naive who fall victim.

Sure, there are still those who hand over their bank details to the former Nigerian cabinet minister who just needs a little help to get his fortune out of the country, or to the incredibly attractive Russian heiress who would be ever so grateful for a little help to fulfil her dreams of living in a weatherboard house nestled in a Vermont cul-de-sac.

Put it this way. If you get an email from Paris Hilton asking you to partner her on a double date with Rihanna and a Mr Snoop Dogg then it is probably a good idea to press the delete button. Don't worry, Paris will get over it.

Dr Dave Lacey (we assume that's his real name) is perhaps Australia's most experienced expert on identity fraud. The former Australian Crime Commission executive director says anyone can be a victim and the results are often catastrophic.

Law enforcement agencies go after the big crooks and financial institutions try to protect people's funds, but Lacey says victims are left to fend for themselves. So he stopped trying to help piece together the global jigsaw to start helping individuals pick up the pieces of their shattered financial profiles.

Lacey has set up iDcare, an organisation that concentrates on helping victims take their lives back. Part funded by the Commonwealth and New Zealand governments, it offers free advice to those victims.

''We have seen people who were literally in tears and didn't know what to do. After a few calls at least we can help them make a plan,'' he says.

With little publicity the fledgling group is receiving up to 30 calls a week from those whose financial security has been breached.

''We get people from all walks of life contacting us from across the country. This crime doesn't discriminate,'' Lacey says. ''Our callers tend to have a common bond though - they're all uncertain about what to do. We try to turn that uncertainty around.''

Last year, Lacey went to a finance conference representing the ACC. ''I was confronted with a number of financial advisers, accountants and tax agents who had had their clients' details compromised. The only advice a lot of them were given from government and industry was to give their clients the bad news.''

Losing a wallet can be bad enough, but when your identity is gone you have to prove who you are to everyone from the Taxation Department to your phone company. And while you are doing it, someone on the other side of the world can be electronically trashing your name, your credit rating and your future.

This is not about someone shaving a few bucks off your credit card. It involves stealing everything from passport to key savings. ''We've seen houses sold under owners' feet,'' Lacey says.

In such schemes, the gang takes the owner's identity and fakes a house sale. Then it produces a bogus buyer who uses the house as collateral to set up a mortgage - ultimately stealing the borrowed money before disappearing.

One of the latest scams is to target medical practices, often single-doctor clinics in country regions. An international syndicate remotely enters the computer files and accesses confidential patient records, simultaneously locking the doctor out of his own system.

After the files are encrypted using Ransomware, the syndicate makes contact and demands a payment, usually around $10,000.

Lacey says he knows of six clinics that have been hit and suspects there are more where the victim has quietly paid without reporting the crime.

Increasingly syndicates are targeting smaller country towns by compromising corner store businesses that are popular with locals. ''We've seen significant portions of township populations have their cards compromised. The effects to a small community can be devastating and lasting.''

Identity theft is the new black for organised crime syndicates, with the Bureau of Statistics recording about 800,000 victims a year nationwide.

''Victims who feel they are on their own are typically confused. They will need to spend a long time responding to such events and have had their confidence shattered,'' Lacey says.

He says iDcare research shows:

■ The average loss from identity theft is about $8200.

■ Around a third of victims suffer reduced credit access and denial of government services.

■ In almost half the cases the victim discovers the crime before the financial organisation's warning systems kick in.

■ On average victims spend more than 10 hours responding.

■ Around two-thirds of victims feel information on what to do is inadequate.

And it will only get worse. Once only the Queen and Ross Stevenson from 3AW were known to never carry cash, but now virtually everyone has access to credit cards to buy anything from a coffee to a Cadillac.

Lacey quotes Roy Morgan research showing more than half of Australians now shop online, which amounts to 9 per cent of the nation's retail spending.

In the year ended June 2012, 8.3 billion transactions were made using ATMs, eftpos, cheque, direct entry and credit cards with a value of $15.1 trillion. That's, on average, 159 million a week with a value of $290 billion.

So why is it that if we all use ATMs so frequently you always get caught behind the knucklehead who can't remember their pin?

Lacey is not one of those experts who says we should only use cash, or better yet barter, eat brown rice and live in mud-brick homes. He uses credit cards and buys online but uses what he says are simple precautions.

Just as you don't walk through a ghetto in a Zegna suit, you don't flag your wealth online. There was a fellow who went on a school reunion site showing a photo of himself with a brand new racing motorbike declaring he had kicked on since he became a full-time drug dealer. As a result he will be unavailable for the next 15 reunions.

Lacey says a credit card scam is probably the best way to be stung as the bigger financial institutions have built-in defences to try to protect customers. But by using the wonders of the internet syndicates are piecing together all the details they need to steal financial and personal profiles.

Too many ignore security updates on their home computers and gush personal details on social media, and we are not talking about out-of-focus selfies of cute puppies (dogs too) or pictures of Sunday's steak and kidney pudding.

According to Lacey, millions around the world are left vulnerable by blabbing personal details on sites such as Facebook, including sharing their research on family trees. ''Leaving your address and date of birth online is an example. Pets' names, high school attended or mother's name are typical identity security questions.''

Once security is breached it is a long way back and can take years to rebuild. ''Three years later victims can still receive a letter saying congratulations for purchasing a new car,'' Lacey says.

Your columnist believes he was the victim of such an attempt when an extremely attractive lady sent a message, ''I really like your photos - dashing out, send me your mobile number and I'll text you later.''

This leaves only two possibilities.

1. She is an attractive woman who is both clinically insane and suffering from cataracts.

2. Or the message came from a hairy-backed Russian who, while munching on a Polish sausage and pickled herring combo, sends out thousands of such messages in the hope of hooking the gullible.

Nyet to you, Vlad. But Paris, give me a call.

iDcare - idcare.org

Ph 1300 432 273