So, I’ve got a joke for you. A man walks into a bank and asks the manager “Can I have a mortgage?” The bank manager says “sure!”, but then changes his mind upon discovering the man owes hundreds of thousands of pounds to a variety of creditors — loans, credit cards, phone contracts, you name it.
Someone had stolen his identity, and used it to go on a massive spending spree. The man then loses his house, his job, and has to move in with his parents. He spends the following two years trying to clear his name (and his credit rating).
Yeah, I know. That’s not so much a joke, and more a tragic tale of woe. It happened to Welsh comedian and actor Bennett Arron, who has since turned it into a highly successful stand-up comedy show, although he grimly notes that it was one of “the most devastating” experiences of his life.
“This happened almost twenty years ago,” he told me at the IP Expo Manchester security conference. “Me and my wife were about to buy a house. The mortgage was sorted, and then the bank manager called me and said ‘we’re stopping your mortgage because we just discovered your outstanding debts’. I looked into it, and for the last year and a half someone had been using my name to ring up these debts. ”
It took just two months for Arron’s life to unravel. “I lost the house we were going to buy, obviously,” he said. “We also couldn’t pay the rent on our old place, because dealing with this was taking up every moment of every day. We ended up with no money and having to move in with my parents, and my wife was pregnant. It was all phenomenally stressful and upsetting.”
Clearing his name was complicated by the fact that, at the time, identity theft was almost unheard of. “I later found out I was the first major victim of this crime in the UK,” he told me. “Nobody believed me.”
Arron admits that as these events were unfolding, the last thought on his mind was creating a comedy show that would ultimately travel the world, and be performed at comedy clubs and conferences. However, he found a sort-of bleak humor in clearing his name.
“When it first happened, I was told to register it as a crime with my local police station,” he said. “A police officer came to my house and I told him everything that happened, and he went ‘this is all very well and good, Mr Arron, but this is your name. How do I know it’s not you that carried out the crime?'”
“You’re quite right, and I would have gotten away with it too if I hadn’t have called you,” he quipped.
It took him about two years to undo the damage caused by this fraudster. Along the way, he encountered enough surreal moments to give him enough material to build a show, which he brought to the Edinburgh Festival.
He has also explored the subject of identity theft in a Channel 4 documentary called “How to steal an identity,” in which he obtained a driving license in the name of the then-current Home Secretary Charles Clarke.
This stunt landed him in a bit of hot water, as the Home Office didn’t see the funny side.
“I was arrested in a dawn raid by Scotland Yard,” he told me. “At six AM in the morning, I got a bang on the door. I went downstairs and three officers were there — two men and a woman. That… that wasn’t fun. I was put into a cell.”
For his trouble, Arron was given a police caution, which, although he wasn’t fined or jailed, will show up on a background check.
He’s understandably pretty bitter about this, as he regards himself as being like a penetration tester. He even performed responsible disclosure. He found a security hole, exploited it, and informed the affected parties.
“I found a loophole that made it possible to obtain a driving license fraudulently,” he said. “I wanted to show them how it could be done, and I thought they’d give me an OBE, but instead they gave me a caution. I don’t think that’s fair.”
“Charles Clarke himself said I should be treated as an example to other people,” he added.
Identity theft is a topic that most people are aware of. Between dire warnings from police, banks, and credit agencies, you could even argue that there’s an “identity theft fatigue.” People have heard about it to the point of saturation, so they switch off.
Arron said he doesn’t ‘lecture’, but shares his personal story in a way that’s funny and sincere. Judging from the raucous laughter from the exhibition hall, this seemingly resonates better with audiences.
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