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Identity theft losses grow, survey finds

U.S. consumers lost nearly $57 billion last year to criminals who stole their identities, but online fraud was the culprit in just one in 10 cases, according to a survey released Tuesday.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. consumers lost nearly $57 billion last year to criminals who stole their identities, but online fraud was the culprit in just one in 10 cases, according to a survey released Tuesday.

The study by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and Javelin Strategy & Research showed that identity theft cost U.S. consumers 4 percent more in 2005 than the $54.4 billion it cost in 2004. The average fraud rose to $6,383 from $5,885.

Nevertheless, the number of adult Americans who learned that criminals had stolen personal data and used it to commit fraud fell to 8.9 million, or 4 percent, from 9.3 million in 2004 and 10.1 million in 2003. Data showed that people who were younger and had lower incomes were more vulnerable.

Results from the phone survey of 5,000 consumers, including more than 500 identity theft victims, show that while identity theft remains a big problem, consumers are growing less gullible and more vigilant.

Indeed, fighting back often gets results. The survey identified a better than a one-in-three chance that victims will be able to track down their perpetrators.

"Consumers have much more control than they think," said James Van Dyke, a principal at Pleasanton, California-based Javelin, in an interview.

Still, he said "it is unfortunately not becoming difficult enough to commit identity fraud."

The survey, conducted from Oct. 17 to Dec. 4 last year, showed that Internet fraud accounts for just 9 percent of identity theft cases.

Only 3 percent stemmed from "phishing," a much-publicized practice where criminals send e-mails asking prospective victims to verify personal data through links to real-looking, but fake, Web sites.

Thirty percent of victims lost data because their wallets, checkbooks or credit cards were lost or stolen. Fifteen percent were victimized by family members, friends or acquaintances, and another 15 percent by fellow employees. Eight percent fell victim to stolen or misdirected mail.

In general, people whose incomes were less than $35,000 reported larger frauds, though people who earned $75,000 to $100,000 a year reported the biggest average fraud: $9,978.

The median fraud — meaning that half were larger and half were smaller — totaled $750, unchanged from a year earlier.

In addition, the survey also found that "Generation X," which it defined as people aged 25 to 34, are more at risk than older people, perhaps because their "more active lifestyle" encourages fraud.

Van Dyke said consumers can protect themselves by more closely monitoring their personal accounts, and reviewing mail that contains financial statements. Putting fraud alerts on credit reports is an effective way to thwart future fraud.

The survey said a typical fraud costs $422 and takes 40 hours to fix. While fraud takes an average of 84 days to detect, 40 percent of cases are resolved within one week.

"Monitoring account activity is a crucial early discovery point for possible fraud," he said. "You're just as likely to spot a problem as your bank."