When ID Theft Starts at Home

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, February 13, 2005

Although a lot of folks fear their identity will be stolen electronically, the thief is more likely to be the devil you know, who picks through your purse or pilfers your personal data right off your own desk.

Within the past 12 months, 9.3 million American adults became victims of identity fraud, according to a new report by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy & Research.

In 2004, for the fifth year in a row, identity theft topped the list of complaints reported to the Federal Trade Commission, accounting for 39 percent of the 635,173 consumer fraud complaints filed with the agency.

Identity thieves will open new accounts in other people's names and rack up debts on existing accounts. To do that, they may use people's Social Security numbers, bank account information, addresses or phone numbers. Some people have been denied jobs or insurance or have been arrested for crimes they did not commit -- all because their identity was stolen.

But according to the 2005 Identity Fraud Survey Report -- released by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin as an update of the FTC's 2003 Identity Theft Survey -- relatives, friends and neighbors make up half of all known identity thieves.

This, of course, comes as good news to businesses that have been pushing online banking and other electronic transactions to consumers. CheckFree, Visa and Wells Fargo supported the research by the BBB and Javelin.

Still, I found it fascinating that when it can be determined how identity theft was committed, the victim usually knew the fraudster. Computer crimes accounted for just 11.6 percent of all known-cause identity fraud in 2004.

And here's another interesting fact from the report: When family members and friends open up credit accounts in your name and commit other crimes, the total cost of the fraud is greater and requires more time to resolve than frauds committed by other criminals, the report found.

For example, the median loss from information stolen from e-mails sent by criminals posing as legitimate businesses (called phishing) is $2,320. But the median loss as a result of fraud by family and friends is $15,607.

So what should you do if someone you know steals your identity? Obviously, report them to the police, right?

"Frequently when we break up a ring and get a list of victims and find family members were involved in the crime, [the victimized] relatives are very reluctant to cooperate," said Ken Hunter, president and chief executive of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. "People are very reluctant to turn in that grandson."

Hunter was very practical on whether you should rat out your relative or friend. For example, if a nephew stole your identity to open up a credit account to buy music CDs, Hunter said it may not be worth the aggravation to turn him in.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company