Identity Theft: The Biggest FTC Complaint in America

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identity theft

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) employees spend a great deal of time and resources combating identity theft crime in the U.S. While there are some victories and convictions, they face an uphill battle. The FTC estimates that around nine million Americans are victims of identity theft each year. In 2009, in fact, the number of victims rose an estimated 12.5% to 11 million.

Simply put, identity theft occurs when a thief obtains and uses your name, Social Security number, contact information, and, in many cases, credit cards to steal from you. Identity thieves can be very clever criminals, and their victims often don't know that thieves have stolen their identities until a credit card invoice arrives [link to Ways to Spot Suspicious Activity on Your Credit Card] with unauthorized charges.

Identity Theft Statistics

The FTC estimates that in 2009, identity thieves stole around $54 billion in goods and services. Once thieves steal personal information, they can perpetrate many different types of fraud, but opening new lines of credit in order to commit credit card fraud is their favorite crime by far. For example, new account fraud accounted for 39% of all fraud cases in 2009, up from 33% in 2008.

Thieves open most of these accounts through websites. Once a thief has your information, filling out a credit card application online is fast and easy, and the thief can usually begin using that account to steal in short order. Current credit cards are also very popular targets, since they allow the thief to begin stealing immediately. The FTC reports that up to 75% of all identity theft crime occurs with existing credit cards.

How Do Thieves Steal Personal Information?

New and increasingly sophisticated identity theft schemes turn up all the time, but, like other kinds of thieves, identity thieves prefer soft and easy targets. Stealing information online requires a fair bit of technical proficiency, but anyone can steal personal information from sources such as the following:

  • Dumpsters and garbage cans with utility bills, credit card statements and applications, and other documents with someone's name and information
  • Purses and wallets, which allow the thief to start stealing immediately
  • Skimming, where the thief has a small device that can read the information stored on the magnetic strip of a credit card; these devices look just like regular credit card readers, and a thief can hide one in the palm of one hand

Protect Yourself from Becoming an Identity Theft Statistic

Your best defense against becoming an identity theft victim is a good offense:

  • Shred all unwanted or unsaved mail and outdated documents that contain your personal information.
  • Pay with cash whenever possible.
  • Don't trust unsolicited email or the links they contain.
  • Buy online only through trusted retailer websites
  • Subscribe to a monitoring service
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