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The bank clerk and I waited on hold together for almost half an hour before I realised something.

I was, of course, well accustomed to hanging on the phone to my bank at home for untold minutes, maybe hours, while the on-hold music played in a nauseating loop and I pottered around getting other things done.

But this was something new. There I was in my cheerfully lit local branch, sitting with the bank assistant, as we both silently listened to that looping music and waited for someone to pick up the phone.

Thinking back, I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out.

My question was faltering: “Are we calling … the same helpline number that I would call if … if I was at home?”

The sweet-faced clerk nodded.

“They don’t give you a direct number you can call, something to get you straight into the banking services division? Even though you work for the same bank?”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d spent the week on air talking to John and Julie, the victims of the worst identity theft and financial fraud I’d ever been told about. Their loss of almost $400,000 – their retirement savings – the theft of their identity, the fraudulent accounts opened and then siphoned off in their names, is a contemporary horror story about the reality of privacy that now hangs by slim, digital thread.

John and his wife Julie are victims of identity theft.(ABC Radio Melbourne: Madi Chwasta)

How the couple lost almost $400,000

They had told me of sitting on the phone for hours to their banks’ emergency fraud lines as they watched the money draining out of their accounts in real time, with nobody picking up at the other end. Their telco didn’t operate a call centre on weekends, so their stolen mobile number was swiftly ported elsewhere, and they were powerless to stop it.

The thieves, now in control of their phone, were receiving the two-factor authentication codes they had prudently enabled and were using them to transfer more and more money out.

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