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Government Reports Rise in Internet Auction Complaints

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; 3:37 PM

Residents of the Washington metropolitan area -- including parts of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia -- led the nation in filing complaints of consumer fraud to the Federal Trade Commission last year, according a report the agency released today.

Complaints about Internet auctions topped the list of activities in the consumer fraud category, which also included complaints about shop-at-home/catalogue sales, Internet and computer services, foreign-money offers and prizes and lotteries.

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The agency received 184 complaints for every 100,000 residents in the Washington region, compared with 172 per 100,000 residents in Silicon Valley, which came in second. Bringing up the rear, at 90 complaints per 100,000 citizens, was the Memphis metropolitan area.

Nationwide, the agency logged a total of 388,602 fraud complaints, an increase from previous years. Of those, 205,568 were Internet related. Separately, the agency collected 246,570 complaints of "identity theft," which occurs when a consumer's financial accounts or credit are compromised by someone using stolen personal data about the consumer to pretend to be him or her.

Together, fraud and identity theft complaints totaled $547 million, the report said. More than half the complaints were registered by people between the ages of 18 and 39.

FTC officials were quick to note that more complaints does not necessarily mean more crime.

Betsy Broder, assistant director of the division of planning and information, said that the FTC has been actively publicizing its complaint database, which is then used by the agency and law-enforcement agencies to develop cases against scam artists.

She added that there might be more complaints locally because the commission is better known here, especially among the legions of federal employees. When the data is broken down by state rather than region, the District of Columbia is first in both consumer-fraud and identity-theft complaints.

Although identity theft complaints rose for the second straight year, Broder said that complaints about new accounts being opened by criminals in the name of innocent consumers declined. Those accounts, and the damage to a consumers' credit worthiness that they can inflict, are the hardest to resolve, she added. Complaints about money being siphoned out of existing accounts rose, Broder said.

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