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Report: Quarter-million Americans Were Identity Theft Victims in 2010

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FTCSentinel_FTCsiteFor the 11th consecutive year, identity theft has topped all other consumer complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission, with registered incidents totaling more than a quarter-million, according to a report issued Tuesday by the FTC.

The 250,854 identity theft complaints account for 19% of the 1.3 million total complaints filed in 2010. The second most commonly reported problem, harassment by debt collectors, represented 11% of complaints.

“No one should take too much comfort in all of this,” says Adam Levin, founder and chairman of Credit.com. “It’s still a huge problem, it still requires vigilance on the part of the public.”

[Related article: Surprising New Identity Theft Trend]

The complaints are tallied in the annual FTC’s Consumer Sentinel report. Since reliable data on identity theft is notoriously difficult to find, the Sentinel report is the de facto benchmark.

The total number of consumer complaints dropped last year, from 1,377,845 in 2009 to 1,339,625 in 2010. Identity theft complaints dropped 9.8% during the same period, to 250,854.

But even the Sentinel report has problems with its data. What does this decline actually mean? Did consumers suffer significantly fewer crimes in 2010? Or did consumers simply fail to report the crimes? Since the Sentinel report is based on complaints from consumers and contributing agencies including the Better Business Bureau, rather than a statistically reliable survey data or actual police reports, there’s no way to know.

“Whenever you deal with a complaint-driven statistic you have to question it because there are lot of people who never complain,” Levin says.

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

Given its limitations, the Sentinel report nevertheless contains some interesting points. This was the first year that imposter scams made it onto the list of top 10 complaints. A typical imposter scam involves hackers taking control of a person’s e-mail account and sending phony messages to the person’s contacts claiming to stranded and in need of money (hoping that recipients respond with a loan or donation, often via Western Union).

Just over 60,000 consumers complained of such schemes in 2010, making it the sixth most common type of consumer problem.

The commission also noticed significant increases in the number of consumers complaining about identity theft incidents involving tax or wage fraud, or thieves signing up for utilities in victims’ names.

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