Don’t give away your personal information to anyone – especially to strangers who come knocking at your door.  Seems like the golden rule to live by nowadays to avoid identity theft and scams…unless the person knocking is from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The government has been very busy telling people to be careful with their personal information. With identity theft now the fastest growing crime in Australia it is no wonder. The Government’s SCAMWatch website continually warns the public about scammers who are trying to steal their personal and financial information by masquerading as a variety of people at their door.

Here is a list of some of the ways SCAMwatch says people have been caught out by door to door scams:

Home maintenance scams: scammers try to sell home maintenance services, like roofing or gardening services, and then bill people for additional work they did not agree to.

Charity scams: These scams play on people’s generosity and involve a scammer posing as a genuine charity in order to fraudulently collect money.

ATO scams: Australian Taxation Office—door-to-door scam. People claiming to be consultants from the ATO ask people to sign up to a fictional government program promising financial incentives, including a reduction in taxes. In return for signing up, scammers ask people for personal information such as credit card information or banking details.

Survey scams: Sometimes scammers pretend to conduct a survey so they can get personal details or to intitally disguise their sales pitch.

Digital television scams: door-to-door salespeople offering to sell people conversion equipment and falsely claiming to represent the government.

People can not only stand to lose out financially, but if they have given over crucial personal information to the door-knocker, and they turn out to be a crook, that can also lead to identity theft. The victim could possibly have fraudsters not only drain their bank accounts, but take out credit in their name. The road to recovery is long and arduous as it can be difficult for people to prove they didn’t take the credit out themselves.

It may have surprised many to then read a report in The Australian titled ‘Pushing the Limits of Privacy’ on Monday about a couple who felt pressured to give over their personal information to Australian Bureau of Statistics officers.

The couple were randomly selected to participate in an extensive survey where they were required to provide financial and personal information to the ABS for their Survey of Income and Housing 2011-12.

The couple felt “uncomfortable” doing this for a couple of reasons. According to the story, they had just returned from a long overseas trip and had no time to view any previous material the ABS had sent them by mail. The couple were simply greeted fresh by someone at the door “demanding” they book in an interview with an officer to give over their personal information and provide documentary evidence to boot.

The couple had been victims of credit card skimming while overseas.

“Interpol had warned them to be especially careful about giving anyone any financial information at all because their experience raised their risk of identity theft,” the story says.

So they were quite “uneasy”. They sat at an interview in their home, answering important questions like date of birth, place of birth, citizenship status – all normal questions for the ABS to ask, but also normal questions for fraudsters looking to extract identity information from their victim.

So why were the couple forced to give over their personal information if they felt uncomfortable about it?

The story explains that in general, ABS collation is compulsory. Failure to comply can result in fines of $110 a day, at the discretion of the magistrate who will hear the case once the person has been charged.

There are exemptions on offer, and the couple may have been able to apply for one, but it appears in the story they were not given an option to apply for an exemption.

ABS spokesman Rod Smith expressed disappointment at the couple’s experience. “If it happened exactly as you’re suggesting, that’s not how we train our people to behave in public,” he says.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is by law allowed to regularly compel a random section of the population to be involved in more extensive surveys in which they are personally interviewed by ABS representatives, and their information is then used for more in-depth surveys.

This makes sense – the ABS surveys are a great snapshot of the population. They are necessary for understanding the people who inhabit this country.

The Personal Fraud Survey 2007 alone has helped us to understand so much more of how identity theft and fraud has affected Australians in reality.

But in this day and age the prospect of a stranger coming into our home for an interview where we give over our personal information can sound quite confronting to some. Many mistrust those that show up at the door claiming to be from one company or another. Those that let people in – well we often read about them in the news as the country’s latest scam victim.

To be compelled to participate may be too much for some people –as it was for this couple who had just had a brush with credit card skimmers. Other groups of people may also have a problem with this type of interview:

“The very fact that someone can come in to a private home to ask these questions may upset those who are particularly sensitive: refugees from totalitarian regimes, for example, or from countries where rule of law and due process are unknown; people, especially the elderly or the physically vulnerable, who live alone; even people, introverts for example, who have never been traumatised but simply have a more highly developed sense than most of the divide between personal and public,” the story says.

This brings to light the issue that possibly in this day and age, the selected people for this in-depth type of survey need to be well informed by the ABS of their right to seek exemption from participation in the survey despite its compulsory nature. In this way, they will feel less pressure to give over something which has turned into a valuable commodity – their personal information.

If people are unsure of what to do if someone comes to their door, SCAMWatch has this advice:

Protect yourself from door-to-door & home maintenance scams

If someone comes to your door, ask to see their identification. You do not have to let them in, and they must leave if you ask them to.

Check that the trader is registered on the Australian Government’s website.

Do not agree to offers or deals straight away: tell the person that you are not interested or that you want to get some advice before making a decision.

If you are interested in what a door-to-door salesperson has to offer, take the time to find out about their business and their offer.

Carry out a web search on the business to see if there are other consumers who have commented on the quality of their work – many scams can be identified this way.

ALWAYS get independent advice if an offer involves significant money, time or commitment.

Read all the terms and conditions of any offer very carefully: claims of free or very cheap offers often have hidden costs.

Always check that goods or services were both ordered and delivered before paying an invoice.

Contact your local office of fair trading if you are unsure about an offer or trader.

For help with repairing a credit rating following identity theft, contact our main website or phone 1300 667 218.

Image: nuttakit /