PAN card data has become essential for certain transactions, which makes PAN card identity theft more likely than ever.

Waving a PAN (Permanent Account Number) card as a form of identity, when such a document is required with a photograph, has become second nature to many of us. Keeping a laminated copy as a spare, and placing the original in safe-keeping, is the strategy adopted by many. But now, with more and more transactions requiring a copy of a PAN card, or at the very least the number, it appears that the role of this essential piece of plastic, and its consequences, are rapidly changing, in a way and manner not anticipated by the authorities.

Tipped off by a message in an amateur railfans group (IRFCA) and prodded by a couple of anecdotal experiences, this is what we discovered about the widespread misuse of PAN card data. If you are using it to book Tatkal tickets, then you have to provide the number. This number then reflects on the booking chart, which is displayed openly on the carriage, at the departure station and elsewhere.

In some cities and states, hotels demand copies of PAN cards. Similarly, if running up huge bills at restaurants, and paying in cash—you can be asked for a PAN card. Then at jewellers, second-hand car dealers, property brokers, landlords, tenants, and many more entities, they all want a copy of your PAN card. Travel agents and visa facilitation centres are also not averse to asking for this detail.

All this is fine in normal situations. But if you have ever seen determined looking young men taking down details of name, age, gender and origin/destination, along with the PAN card number, from railway reservation charts, know that they are paid anything between Rs5 and Rs10 per detail collected. And if you have ever received strange phone calls or telegrams/emails from weird people after applying for a visa, then it worries you even more. Very often they appear to have copies of all the documents you placed with the visa centres.

This PAN card number then becomes a tool for benami transactions in a variety of hands. And it appears that this problem is growing very rapidly. Including, it seems, with credit cards issued, new cars purchased, or similar.

What happens, then, if you are a victim of PAN card identity theft, and data emerges which shows you as having transacted a vast amount of money somewhere? Which may also match with your actual travel?

# From the trader’s point of view, a penalty of Rs10,000 per wrong PAN card information provided can be levied and so it becomes incumbent on the trader to try to ensure that correct data is collected and provided, preferably with an additional identity proof.

#  From the tax-paying PAN card holder’s point of view, if despite checking the Form 26AS online some benami transactions take place, and you do not spot it till it is too late, then the Income Tax department will ask the PAN card holder to prove that he did not carry out the transaction. The Income Tax department can also ask the PAN card holder to explain the source of the funds used. Resolution can take years.

# From the non-tax-paying PAN card holder’s point of view, there may not even be the option of checking Form 26AS online, and the first he will come to know is when he receives a notice from the Income Tax department. Again, the common man suffers—and God help you if somebody takes a dislike towards you.

Obviously, the quoting of a PAN card for cash transactions is not a fool-proof method and needs to be fine-tuned some more. That is for the finance ministry to consider and implement and one method would be to insist that additional steps like signed photocopy of PAN card, signed photocopy of additional identity document and possibly video/photo record of the transaction be retained by traders/customers taking part in high-value cash transactions.

On your part, try not to use the PAN card as an identity document or for other casual transactions, and have control over photocopies given out.

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