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Along with enormous popular interest in the topic, and focused web sites (e.g., The Identity Theft Resource Center), we now have two nationally representative data sets on identity theft in the United States. For the first time, the National Crime Victim Survey (NCVS) asked questions of U.S. citizens to determine whether they discovered whether they have been the victim of identity theft, variously defined, during the past six months. The data are displayed in the table below, which shows that 3.1% of U.S. households had discovered some form of identity theft during the six months preceding their 2004 interview:
As you can see in the table, identity theft most often involves the misuse of a credit card (one and a half percent of U.S. households). The next highest amount (eight tenths of one percent of U.S. households) involves the misuse of information to open other accounts (such as a checking account) or commit other crimes. Finally, a total of four tenths of one percent of U.S. households experienced multiple types of theft during the same episode.
The victims of identity theft as defined above are more likely in households with an income of seventy-five thousand dollars or more; where the age of the head of household is younger (age 18-24); and in nonrural areas. Two-thirds of households reporting identity theft did not report any problems as a result of the discovery, but a third did report problems: in order of frequency (most first): contact by a debt collector or creditor; banking problems; problems with credit card accounts; had to pay higher interest rates; denied phone or utility service; and others. While many instances of identity theft were resolved within a day, others took weeks or months to resolve; thefts of personal information took longer to resolve.
This study estimates that identity theft in the study period resulted in $3.2 billion in losses (although any reimbursed losses, such as insurance payoffs, were not calculated in this total). Some households experienced big hits (1 in 20 households reporting any monetary loss indicate that they lost $5,000 or more) but the median among households reporting $1 or more in losses was $400.
The Federal Trade Commission had its own nationally representative study conducted on identity theft, which was published in 2003. Using a different procedure for sampling, this study finds, similar to the BJS study above, that the percentage of survey respondents experiencing various forms of identity theft totalled 4.6 percent in the past year. It also finds that 12.7 percent of respondents reported being victims of identity theft over the past five years. A helpful table from p. 5 of that report is shown below. See the full report for details.
So there you have it. In the old days (i.e., before the term 'identity theft' was coined and applied to crime) credit card fraud was called credit card fraud, or check forgery, or something similar, but we didn't call either identity theft. Today the media, insurance companies, spammers, and other fear mongers have gotten a hold of 'identity theft' and and run with it to create one of the biggest fears of propertied and even non-propertied people whose vital information is fraudulently used for gain by others. This has a lot of consequences, not the least of which is insecurity and fear of random victimization in the face of old wine in new bottles.
The New York Times recently ran an article by Eric Dash, "Protectors, Too, Gather Profits From ID Theft," which notes that:
"It is not just criminals who are profiting from identity theft; financial institutions are making money, too. Fear of identity theft has helped give rise to a nearly billion-dollar business in credit-monitoring services sold by the major credit bureaus...as well as direct marketers and banks.
"Javelin Strategy and Research, which analyzes the credit-monitoring market, says more than 12 million Americans are now subscribers."
Also, check out this statement:
"Identity theft is the number one consumer crime in America, and still growing rapidly. Many employers are beginning to realize that identity theft protection can be a highly valuable addition to an employee benefits program, and The Identity Guardian has been developed to respond to that need. Recent surveys indicate that identity theft is at the top of the list of financial concerns of Americans, especially for professionals, who have more exposure and more to lose."
In any event, a challenge to BJS will be to figure out how to separate or include identity theft within existing categories of theft in the NCVS. Was it included in these statistics before, implicitly or explicitly? Is it included now? What will the future hold? We hope that thinkers about this matter will not turn their backs on it as they have for arson.
Hopefully, the existance of these data, and the legacy of fraud by whatever means, will be enough to respond to some claims by myth-makers who spread falsehoods about identity theft. The consequences of the less prevalent kinds of identity theft are severe enough without blending credit card or check fraud into the mix.
Addendum: most recently Tiversa claims to have data indicating that there has been a dramatic increase in identity theft from 2007-2008. (See their report here.) This is a fascinating claim. The database and technology used to generate the data are not clear and one should hesitate in jumping to conclusions based on these data.