Identity Theft Ranks High in FTC Complaints

Among the many ways Americans see themselves getting swindled these days, identity theft ranks first.

Among the many ways Americans see themselves getting swindled these days, identity theft ranks first.

Of nearly 700,000 grievances lodged with the Federal Trade Commission last year, 37 percent concerned ID theft, the agency disclosed Jan. 25.

The most common means of stealing identities is through credit card fraud, according to the complaints filed with the FTC. ID thieves also took advantage of phone, utility, employment and bank records, particularly electronic funds transfers.

For vendors and enterprises, the focus is not so much on stopping the theft of personal information via e-mail or any other medium but on preventing crimes resulting from that theft.

"The theft of personal information does not result directly in identity theft," said Steven Gal, co-founder and vice president of corporate development for ID Analytics, in San Diego. "We think the real opportunity is in preventing the conversion of that data into cash by criminals. This isnt a hobby. Theyre not stealing this data because its fun. Theyre stealing it because they can make money."

From the viewpoint of anti-fraud technology vendors, there is good news in the FTCs annual report. Stolen identities are being used less frequently to commit crimes in sectors where anti-fraud technologies have been put in place, namely in opening new accounts with credit card companies, banks and wireless companies. Stolen information was used in 15.6 percent of credit card new-account fraud last year, compared with 19.3 percent in 2003.

For new wireless accounts, the percentage dropped to 9 percent from 10.5 percent over the same years.

The Internet is becoming an ever-growing scam trap for Americans, with nearly half of the fraud-related complaints filed with the FTC last year having to do with online activities and accounting for $335 million in losses to consumers.

E-mail, according to the complaints, is the communications medium of choice for fraudsters. Last year, 35 percent of the complaints stemmed from contact made initially through e-mail, up from 26 percent in 2003.