Identity Theft

A Look Back at Identity Theft Trends

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IdentityTheft_David_Goehring_flickrAs the Federal Trade Commission releases its latest Consumer Sentinel annual report on identity theft, we thought we’d take a look at previous reports and our own coverage to bring a deeper level of understanding to the crime and track its trajectory over the years.

The number of identity theft complaints to the FTC increased significantly throughout much of the last decade, as we reported in 2007 and 2008. Identity theft was the most common complaint from consumers to the FTC by far, accounting for 21% of all complaints in 2008. (The next largest category, concerning problems with debt collectors, accounted for just 9% of all complaints.)

As our founder and chairman Adam Levin points out, the FTC’s complaint data likely grossly underestimates the identity theft problem, for a few reasons. Many people never discover they’ve been victimized by identity thieves. When they finally do discover the crime, they may call it something else, like theft, even if what’s stolen is their drivers’ license, Social Security card or credit card, which can lead immediately to identity theft.

[Related: The Javelin Conundrum: Making Sense of the Latest Identity Theft Numbers]

Local police departments have the same problem, since unlike crimes like murder or burglary, there’s no consistent method for filing and tracking identity theft cases. Finally, few consumers know that the FTC even gathers identity theft data, or that they can file their complaints with the commission.

Because of these problems, we try to cover reports and studies about identity theft from other sources. In February I wrote about a new report by Javelin Strategy & Research, which found that identity theft actually declined 28% from 2009 to 2010. The findings reinforce results from the FTC’s 2009 Sentinel report, which found that the number of consumer complaints dropped 11.5% between 2008 and 2009.

[Tool: Quickly assess your risk of identity theft for free]

Meanwhile, the proliferation of social media gives identity thieves many new targets to hunt. In January, Brian O’Connell covered a report by Sophos, an IT firm, which found that 40% of survey respondents received malware from social networking sites in 2010, a 90% increase from the year before. Phishing attacks doubled in the same time period, hitting 43% of respondents.

If annual reports seem a little analog in this age of up-to-the-second news updates, Brian also recently wrote about a new project by Norton, the computer security software maker, to produce a cyber crime index that estimates the changing risk of identity theft on a daily basis. (The latest index report we checked placed the risk of identity theft at “Low.”)

Image: David Goehring, via Flickr.com

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