Most ID theft still occurs the old-fashioned way

The theft or exposure of personally identifiable information through hacking of IT systems receives a lot of attention, but a recent study of identity theft victims showed that, in 2007, most identity thieves still relied on the tried-and-true methods of stealing data.

Nearly one-third of victims reported that personal information was stolen by a friend or family member, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC). Lost or stolen wallets, planners or personal digital assistants accounted for 14 percent of stolen information. The theft of data over the Internet accounted for only 5 percent of cases studied by ITRC in 2007, a perennial second-tier source of data over the five years of the study.

On the other side of the equation, using a stolen identity to illegally access an online bank account appears to be a growth area. Eleven percent of victims reported violations of online accounts last year, up from 4.4 percent in 2004. Opening a new credit account in the victim's name remains the consistently dominant crime, accounting for 57 percent of cases in 2007.

The ITRC reported its findings in its fifth annual study of the aftermath of identity theft, funded by a grant from the Justice Department's Office of Victims of Crime.

The ITRC is a nonprofit organization providing support and education for victims of identity theft and advice to government agencies and legislators. The 2007 study is not comprehensive, covering only 117 victims out of 817 who responded to the survey.

Methods used to obtain sensitive data included stealing mail and fraudulently changing an address to intercept mail, robbing a home or car, and going through trash. Scams, which accounted for 7 percent of cases in 2007, appear to be increasing in the five years covered by the studies. Financial fraud is the most common use of stolen identity, although in a small percentage of cases the victim's name has been given to police by a person arrested for a crime or was used to fraudulently apply for government benefits.

The cost of the thefts is going up. Respondents in 2007 spent an average of $550.39 in out-of-pocket expenses for damage done to an existing account. For new accounts, respondents spent an average of $1,865.27 compared to $1,342 in 2006. In addition to the expense, most victims also reported they had been denied credit or had more difficulty getting credit after the theft. Many are being dunned by collection agencies, 18 percent have had a harder time getting a job and 7 percent report that they have been unable to clear their criminal records.

The response to thefts by businesses and government agencies appears to be improving, although the effects of identity theft still can be long-term for victims. Nearly half of victims were able to clear up issues within six months, a percentage that has increased steadily from 13 percent in 2004. But 9 percent reported they were still dealing with the thefts more than five years after the fact.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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