Who Experienced Identity Theft in 2016? One in Ten Americans

Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker thought that the government was just slow in starting her Social Security benefits. But after a few months had elapsed, she called her local Social Security Administration office. The representative told her that the benefits had started in October, but the funds had been sent to a Green Dot online banking account.

When she then called the national Social Security Administration telephone number, the representative immediately recognized that Parker had been a victim of identity theft, filed a fraud report, and gave her information about next steps to take. Someone had obtained access to her My Social Security account at ssa.gov and changed the bank routing and checking numbers to a bank account not owned by Parker.

According to the most recent results from the Identity Theft Supplement of the National Crime Victimization Survey, Parker has a lot of company. In January 2019, about the same time that Parker wrote about her incident, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released statistics from the 2016 survey, calculated from the responses of 96,000 survey participants (the survey had a response rate of 61%).

Although this publication did not get much media attention when released, the headline statistics are stunning: an estimated ten percent of persons age 16 and over—a total of 26 million people in the United States—experienced at least one incident of identity theft in the preceding 12 months. By contrast, it is estimated that fewer than 500,000 persons (one-fifth of one percent) were robbery victims in 2016.

This is up from the seven percent, or 17 million persons, estimated to be victims of identity theft in the 2014 survey (I discussed the 2014 survey in Measuring Crime: Behind the Statistics), although the Bureau of Justice Statistics warns about making comparisons because of methodology changes for the 2016 sample.

Who were the victims? According to the survey, persons in households with income more than $75,000 per year had the highest risk, with 14% of them experiencing at least one identity theft victimization. Persons between the ages of 35 and 64 had a higher prevalence of identity theft than persons in other age groups.

As with any statistic, the estimated prevalence of identity theft depends on what is measured and how the questions are asked. The Identity Theft Supplement questionnaire tells respondents that “[i]dentity theft means someone else using your personal information without your permission to buy something, get cash or services, pay bills, or avoid the law” and asks about three main types:

  • Unauthorized use of an existing account, such as a credit or debit card, checking or savings, telephone, mortgage, insurance, Paypal, or ITunes account.

  • Unauthorized use of personal information to open a new account.

  • Other misuse of personal information, for example to get medical care, get a job, rent an apartment, or file a fraudulent tax return. This category includes persons pretending to be you when they are charged with a crime or traffic violation.

The statistics include attempts as well as completed crimes. Of course, they include only the crimes that the victims were aware of and reported to the survey. Some crimes (like Parker’s) can go on for months or years before being discovered; some may never be.

Who were the offenders? Most of the survey participants who reported an incident (94%) did not know who stole their information.

Information about who commits identity theft comes largely from enforcement activities—but identity thieves are hard to catch. Many cybercriminals operate outside of the United States.

But the more people who report this crime, the more information authorities have for catching offenders. You can report identity theft to your local police department or to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which also has information on steps to take if you’ve been victimized by this type of crime.

Want to reduce your chances of becoming part of the identity theft statistics? The FTC gives tips on how to make yourself a less attractive target and how to keep customers’ data secure. You can also find advice about protecting your information from AARP and state Attorney General offices.

Copyright (c) 2019 Sharon L. Lohr