Saturday, February 23, 2008

FTC Identity Theft Data Causes Skewed Views

The FTC has issued the latest report for 2007 on Consumer Fraud and Identity Theft Complaint Data. With no great shock or surprise identity theft is still the number one complaint by a long shot being 32% of the reported 813,899 total complaints reported. The next closest category was Shop at Home/ Catalog Sales with a mere 8%. There were 20 categories in all and the bottom 13 categories were each 2% or less.

This is a good report as it paints many pictures but at the same time skews the reality due to how the information is collected.

Certain areas of the US have more information available to consumers or police agencies that promote reporting identity theft to the FTC.

Because the reporting is entirely voluntary lends more of an explanation as to why some states have more incidences than others. The reality of identity theft crime statistics goes much deeper than the simplistic overview of the charts of this report.

A Skewed View

I have read a number of articles from various states that have had a decrease in the number of incidences reported to the FTC are feeling incredibly good about it. They are utilizing this information to pat themselves on the back. In Wisconsin one state that experiinced a decrease, had the administrator of the Division of Trade and Consumer Protection claiming they like to think they are getting the word out better, but also claims she does not know why they ended up so low in the rankings. She obviously needs to take a class on Understanding Reports 101, or is just looking to get a promotion. Statements like this coming from someone who is the head of consumer protection for the state should be a bit unnerving for the residents of Wisconsin.

But kudos goes to the Wisconsin Bankers Association who says the FTC information does not reflect what they are seeing.

Take a state such as Colorado with this same view. They have 4 of the top 50 metropolitan areas in the US reporting identity theft. Of those 4 areas, they all had a highly disproportionate number of reports compared to the other 46 areas. That does not directly indicate it is a state with an unusually high rate of identity theft, but likely a state that is actually educating consumers on what to do and encouraging reporting to the FTC.

No signs of abatement

One thing can be said with certainty is that identity theft is not showing any significant signs of abatement.

With all of the services available to stop this, and alert you of that, and the thousands that are paying monthly fees, one would expect this number would be dropping dramatically, or at least see a slight dent in the numbers.

But then again if you rely on some reporting agency with a subscription service you pay monthly to tell you someone has your information and tried to open some type of account in your name, the theft has already happened and is likely eligible to be reported to the FTC anyway. Paying money each month to have someone tell you a theft has occurred will not change the fact that a thief already has your information.

Reporting to the Police

What is still shocking in this report is the number of people who did not report the crime to a police agency which was 65% or 158,535. Why they chose not to is a mystery that we are looking into, but even more disturbing was the revelation that of the 35% that did take the time to report the crime 8% of those did not get a report taken from the police.

The reality of what was going on at the time is the police are looking around the precinct when a victim calls or shows up. They see they have 2 muggers, a car thief, and an arsonist all waiting to be booked and processed. An identity theft victim comes in declaring a theft that by appearances likely occurred across state lines or out of the country. The probability of an arrest is remote, but the headache of the extra paperwork 100% guaranteed.

The message sent is this is a crime to be treated lightly by consumers and the some (not all) police agencies are not be doing enough to encourage or educate people in how to protect themselves. If thousands are turned away and led to believe the police can do nothing, then a feeling of helplessness will likely prevail.

The best defense is self defense. A majority of identity theft starts with people leaving the gates to their identity open and allowing the fraud to occur.