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Is Identity Theft Risk Overblown?

by Peter Andrew
Is Identity Theft Risk Overblown?

It’s difficult these days to miss the warnings about identity theft — most every newspaper and TV news show has reported rising numbers of identity theft cases, generally humanizing the reports with stories of individual identity theft victims and the trauma the thefts have caused. But is the threat of identity theft really growing? What is reality and what is myth? The 2006 Identity Fraud Survey, released in late January by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and Javelin Strategy & Research, has some surprising answers.

According to the survey of over 5,000 people, the percentage of Americans who have been identity theft victims in the past year has actually decreased to 4.0% in 2006 from 4.7% in 2003, or 8.9 million people in 2006 versus 10.1 million in 2003. And, while the costs of identity theft have risen slightly, it is rare for a victim to incur substantial out-of-pocket expenses to resolve the issue — $422 on average (out of the $6,383 in actual losses from the average identity theft). Three other interesting and perhaps surprising facts came from the survey.

First, identity theft rarely takes place over the Internet. Over 90 percent of identity theft cases originate offline, often through purses and wallets being lost or stolen. In fact, people who use the Internet to track accounts were more likely to notice bank or credit card irregularities and report the theft before the losses became significant. Second, identity theft is perpetrated by someone we know almost as often as by someone we don’t know — 47% of identity thefts were from people known to the victim. Third, contrary to many reports, it is not the elderly that are usually victims of identity theft — in fact, just the opposite. Those in the 25-34 age group were the most likely to be victimes, with 5.4% of the group having been victimized.

Conversely, only 2.3% of those 65 and over had been victims. Also, the cost in dollars of identity theft for younger age groups is much higher than for older groups. One thing the numbers definitely do show — identity theft is a hassle. In 2003, identity theft victimes spent an average of 33 hours to resolve their case; in 2006, victims spent a full 40 hours dealing with the fallout. Based on the survey’s findings, it’s not so much the bogeyman preying on Internet victims or the elderly that leads to identity theft. Rather, it’s the person who doesn’t keep a close eye on his or her pocketbook when around strangers — or friends for that matter.

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