There world is suddenly overrun with doom-sayers warning the public of identity theft disaster, but few that give much practical advice beyond “buy a paper shredder”, and throw nothing official away that hasn’t been through it.

Scotsman Jamie Jamieson has spent a good part of the last three years trying to convince the UK financial industry that people can, in fact, protect themselves from ID theft disaster in an incredibly rudimentary, low-tech way.

No need to enrol with an ID protection service, no hefty annual fees, and tolerable peace of mind. The only investment needed is an ink pad, and the occasional willingness to get your thumb dirty.

Jamieson’s solution was inspired by observing anti-fraud schemes run since 2001 in a clutch of small towns across the UK. Set up to protect shops from fraudulent use of credit and debit cards, they involved asking customers buying goods to submit a fingerprint to authorise each transaction.

This fingerprint was kept by the shop in paper form for up to six months, in the same way credit card signatures would normally be kept. If fraud was detected, police would have a fingerprint of the culprit, which could be matched against their national – and much feared - database of fingerprints of known criminals.

If a match was found then they had evidence of that person having committed a new fraud. If the print was not known, then they had evidence that could be entered into the system for future reference.

The schemes haven’t been without their hassles. Some people would refuse to submit fingerprints (which could alert a shop owner to carry out further ID checks), and clearly shoppers could find the extra stage of submitting a fingerprint a hassle at the shop checkout. But the published accounts of the schemes suggest it has had a worthy effect in reducing card crime in the areas in which it was trialled, mainly because it acted as a low-cost deterrent.

Analysing the simple principle behind the scheme, Jamieson realised it could be used to deter many types of financial crime, including identity theft.

“One of the reasons it was successful was that it required no change to the current system,” says Jamieson.

Agency power
The UK credit checking industry is dominated by three companies, Equifax, Experian, and Call Credit, organisations that operate across the developed world. A person’s records ability to borrow money, open a bank account, or apply for a credit card, depends on the history of financial behaviour tracked by these companies. The whole point of identity fraud is to piggyback on the reputation of people who have built up good credit scores on these companies’ databases.

Most people know that in the UK they have a legal right (for a small fee) to examine these records, and challenge them if they feel they are incorrect. However, few realise that they can, free of charge, amend this record with a 200-word special notice.

Jamieson decided to use this element of the record to specify that all major financial transactions carried out in his name, such as borrowing money or opening a bank account, should only be approved with a thumbprint. Anyone attempting to impersonate him would have to be prepared to give this to gain approval, thereby handing police with a valuable piece of evidence. The only thing he had to remember to do was carry around an inkpad.

In his view, this information could easily be stored in paper form on every such application, attached to any completed forms. No central database is required for it to act as a deterrent.

Simple card-not-present (CNP) fraud could benefit from such a system, he claims, because it would be possible for delivery companies to collect thumbprints when presenting goods purchased over the Internet or by phone. As long as customers were agreeable, the costs would be vanishingly low.

One potential problem with the idea is that credit checking agencies have already spotted a lucrative market for ID protection at the credit scoring stage, and charge around £50 to add extra such checks during certain kinds of transactions. They are not exactly going to encourage the core market for such services to achieve much the same effect by spending nothing.

Reaction to the idea has also been cool from the wider financial services industry, but he points out that that is hardly surprising – the people with most to gain from such an innovation are individuals at risk of ID theft, not finance companies.

He has nothing to gain from the idea as it is something anyone could do themselves without paying a penny to him. He does ask anyone taking advantage of his insight to make a small, charitable donation, but this is optional.

Jamieson remains one of a tiny number of people in the UK to have such a thumbprint notice on his credit scoring records. He no less likely to be targeted by criminals for his efforts, but sleeps easy in the knowledge that any attempted fraud is considerably less likely to be successful.

How about the rest of us?

If you’d like to comment on this article, send an email to [email protected] or [email protected]