The federal agency says the extent and cost of the incidents vary widely.
More than 8 million American adults were victims of identity theft in 2005, the Federal Trade Commission said Nov. 27.
Of the victims, 3.2 million experienced unauthorized use of their existing credit card accounts, according to an FTC survey. Another 3.3 million reported misuse of non-credit card accounts and 1.8 million victims said that new accounts were opened or other frauds were committed using their personally identifying information.
The cost of being an ID theft victim varies widely, according to the survey. The FTC examined the value of the goods or services stolen, and in at least half of the cases, ID thieves stole $500 or less in goods and services. However, in 10 percent of the incidents, thieves made away with at least $6,000.
"The important thing is that people learn how to deter identity thieves, detect suspicious activity on their financial records and defend against the crime, should it happen," Lydia B. Parnes, director of the FTCs Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement.
The FTC survey also gathered information about victims out-of-pocket expenses in dealing with the ID theft. In more than half of the cases, victims incurred no such expenses while another 10 percent reported out-of-pocket expenses of $1,200 or more.
The survey also asked respondents to estimate the amount of time spent resolving ID theft-related cases. The median time was four hours, but 10 percent of the victims reported spending at least 55 hours resolving the issue. Of that 10 percent, half said they spent at least 130 hours cleaning up after the ID theft.
Beyond the problems of cost and time, 37 percent of respondents said they were also harassed by debt collectors, denied new credit and were unable to use existing credit cards.
The survey also found that ID thieves stole more goods and services when they opened new accounts rather than hijacking existing accounts. When thieves used existing accounts, the median value of the loss was less than $500. However, when they opened new accounts, the median loss was $1,350.
Of respondents reporting ID thefts, 17 percent said that their personal information was used to open at least one new account. The two most common types of accounts thieves opened were telephone service accountsboth land-line and wireless phone accountsreported by 8 percent of victims, and credit card accounts, which were reported by 7 percent of the respondents.
Parnes urged consumers to use available tools to fight against ID thieves, noting that Americans have the right to a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three national reporting companies.
The study was conducted through interviews with 4,917 people between March 27 and June 11, 2006.
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