More and more Americans are complaining about fraudsters hijacking their identities, according to new data released by the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday.
The agency received over 490,000 identity theft complaints in 2015, a nearly 50 percent jump from the previous year.
The primary driver of the bump was an increase in tax-related complaints, according to FTC spokesman Justin Cole. "We received more than twice the number of tax related identity theft complaints in 2015 versus 2014," he said. That makes sense because of a huge surge in criminals using services like TurboTax to steal refunds last year.
Identity theft has long topped the list of complaints received by the consumer watchdog agency. But even with the latest increase, the FTC complaints barely scratch the surface of America's identity theft problems.
According to the Department of Justice, an estimated 17.6 million Americans aged 16 or older were victims of at least one attempt or incident of identity theft in 2014 — the most recent year for which the data is currently available.
But less than 1 percent of victims said they turned to the FTC, according to the DOJ survey. And less than 1 in 10 said they reported the incident to the police.
If identity theft is such a big problem, then why do so few people ask the government for help? To answer that question, we need to talk a little bit about what identity theft actually means — and who foots the bill.
Identity theft can take many forms, from pretending to be another person to get government benefits to taking over existing financial accounts or creating new ones in someone else's name.
But by far the biggest chunk of actual incidents in the U.S. involves someone trying to hijack an existing bank or credit card account. In 2014, that type of identity theft accounted for 80 percent of the most recent type of incident to affect victims, according to the Justice Department survey.
Because of this, financial institutions and credit card companies invest heavily in detecting fraud — and they often give consumers a guarantee that they won't be responsible for fraudulent activity on their accounts, at least if it's caught quickly. So for some people, their entire experience with identity theft may be a call about something looking fishy on their credit card.
"A lot of it is resolved through banks and credit card companies," said Mike Litt, consumer program advocate at U.S. PIRG.
The end result is that very few identity theft victims end up on the hook for the financial cost of the crime: Just 7 percent of all the victims told DOJ the identity theft cost them more than $100 out-of-pocket.
Of course, it's not always that easy, especially for people dealing with other types of identity theft. If a criminal opens up a new account using another person's name, it can leave a complicated web to untangle for the victim.
"It's certainly a very stressful and time-consuming thing to go through," Litt said. Even if the bad guy doesn't succeed in opening an account, repeated attempts to check your credit can ding your credit score — potentially leading to financial hardship down the line, he said.
But there are some proactive steps you can take to avoid getting caught up in new account fraud. One tactic is to freeze your credit — a process where you typically pay a few dollars to lock down your credit report so it can't be accessed unless you've contacted the credit reporting agency to temporarily thaw it out.
And the FTC is trying to make recovery easier. The agency recently updated its online resources for victims of identity theft.The agency's site, IdentityTheft.gov, now can help victims create individualized recovery plans to help mitigate some of the damage — walking consumers through things like placing fraud alerts on accounts, reporting incidents to law enforcement, and freezing their credit.
“Millions of Americans have been victims of identity theft, and until now, there has not been a single site where they can quickly file an official complaint and then get real, personalized help,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez in a press release. “The FTC’s new IdentityTheft.gov website empowers consumers to fight back faster and more effectively against identity thieves.”