Federal Trade Commission warns
against 'growing tide of identity theft'
Identity theft complaints are soaring.
And a surprising number of the people being
ripped off know the people who are doing it to them.
The Federal Trade Commission received over 160,000
identity theft complaints, accounting for 43 percent of all consumer
complaints in 2002. The Federal Trade Commission's Consumer
Sentinel, a complaint database, collects information about identity
theft and consumer fraud from the FTC and other sources, including
the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, the National Consumers League
and the Social Security Administration.
The FTC warns that there is a "growing
tide of identity theft."
The fear of identity theft has gripped the public
as few consumer issues have. Consumers fear the long-lasting impact
on their lives that results from the denial of a mortgage, employment,
credit or an apartment lease when credit reports are littered with
the fraudulently incurred debts of an identity thief.
No. 1 target: credit cards
An FTC breakdown of the calls from the past year shows that approximately:
- 42 percent reported credit card fraud, i.e.
a credit card account opened in their names or a "takeover"
of their existing credit card accounts;
- 22 percent complained that the identity thief
opened up telephone, cellular or other utility services in their
- 17 percent reported that fraudulent checks
had been written on their accounts, a checking or savings account
had been opened in their names, and/or unauthorized electronic
fund transfers occurred;
- 9 percent reported employment-related fraud;
- 8 percent reported forged government documents
and/or benefits paid out;
- 6 percent claimed that the identity thief
obtained a loan, such as a car loan, in their names.
It's not just strangers
The FTC's 2001 data also reveals information about the perpetrators.
Although 87 percent of the caller-complainants did not personally
know the identity thief, 68 percent provided some identifying information
about the identity thief, such as a name, address or phone number.
The remaining 13 percent of the victims reported that
they personally knew the suspect. They were either family members,
friends, neighbors, roommates or co-workers.
But, an increasing number of identity theft
is coming from inside sources, says Mari Frank, privacy advocate
and lawyer who wrote The
Identity Theft Survival Guide. "Disgruntled employees are
obtaining sensitive customer information and either using it themselves
or selling it," she says. "In these situations, victims
can do nothing to protect themselves. The burden is on the financial
industry and businesses to review their privacy policies."
Help from Washington
In addition to its toll-free consumer hotline (1-877-ID-THEFT),
the FTC also provides an ID
Theft Web site that includes tips on how to guard against identity
theft and warns about some of the latest ID theft scams.
Callers who reach the hotline are advised to
file a police report with their local law enforcement agency. "While
filing a police report is a reactive response to identity theft,
only a fraction of identity theft reports are investigated,"
But, she adds, "It's still an important
step in restoring your good name and cleaning your credit report."
Victims are then advised to contact each of
consumer reporting agencies to obtain copies of their credit
reports. They are also briefed on their rights to have credit report
errors corrected, limits
on their liability for unauthorized charges and restrictions
on the collection of debts they did not authorize.
"Not only will the creditor request a police
report when a victim disputes a fraudulent charge on their credit
card," says Joanna Crane, program manager of the FTC's Identity
Theft program, "but credit reporting agencies will give the
victim the benefit of the doubt and block the disputed information
from their credit report while under investigation if they
provide a police report."
Complaints received from victims of identity theft
via the hotline or online complaint form are entered into the FTC's
Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse, the federal government's database
for tracking identity theft complaints. The data is available to
law enforcement agencies across our nation.
"Typically identity thieves don't work
only one area," says Naomi Lefkovitz, an attorney with the
FTC's Identity Theft program. "The ID Theft Data Clearinghouse
is a tool for law enforcement agencies to search for identity theft
patterns and new schemes, coordinating their efforts with law enforcers
in different jurisdictions."