While being the victim of any crime is unpleasant, there is something particularly unsettling about someone pretending to be you. If your own name isn’t safe, then what is? Here are some things you should know about this all-too-common crime.
What Is Identity Theft?
The Bureau of Justice defines financial identity theft in these three ways:
- Unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing account
- Unauthorized use or attempted use of personal information to open a new account
- Misuse of personal information for a fraudulent purpose
How Common Is Identity Theft?
According to a Bureau of Justice report (from which many of the statistics quoted here emanate), about one in 14 Americans age 16 or older were victims of some form of identity theft in 2014. Since the numbers were very similar in their 2012 report, it can be deducted that identity theft is common enough that everyone should be concerned about it. While it might have happened to the other guy last year and the year before that, eventually it could happen to you.
Who Is Stealing My Identity?
The Bureau of Justice reports that 90 percent of identity theft victims do not know anything about the person or people who stole their identity. So that means it’s usually not somebody in your household taking your purse or your wallet and running amok, it’s being done by seasoned crooks who have made identity theft their art.
How Does Identity Theft Even Happen?
You will probably never really know. Most victims have no idea how it happened – which is why it’s so important to stay vigilant. A reported 86 percent of all Americans do make at least some effort to combat identity theft by changing passwords on financial accounts (to something other than the all-too-common '123456' or 'PASSWORD'), shredding documents and looking over their credit reports for signs of mischief.
How Do I Know if My Identity Has Been Stolen?
About one in five victims become wary when they notice fraudulent charges on their accounts. About 45 percent are notified by their financial institution about suspicious activity on their account. That is why it’s a good idea to check your credit card bill and bank statements on a regular basis. You may also start getting statements for credit cards you did not have and collections calls for debts you had nothing to do with. You may also get a brand new credit card in the mail – not an offer for a card, but the card itself. This is an indication that a thief may have applied for a card in your name. Thieves may also do a change-of-address on an existing account so that you do not see your statement riddled with their illegal purchases. If your monthly bill is way overdue, it may be because of this. There may also be some irregularities on your credit report. Be sure yours is in good order.
Are the Elderly Especially Vulnerable to Identity Theft?
No. While there are many scams targeting the elderly, they do not appear to be any more likely to be victimized by identity theft than anyone else. In fact, they are actually less so; in 2012, a person aged 16 to 64 had a 40 percent more likely to be an identity theft victim than someone aged 65 or older. In 2014, it was down to 17 percent greater, so the percentage of elderly victims grew quite a bit (16.7 percent) between the 2012 and 2014 reports. Whether or not this trend will continue in 2016 remains to be seen, but the elderly are still less likely to be identity theft victims than their younger fellow citizens.
How Quickly Can Identity Theft Issues Be Resolved?
The good news is that for over half the victims, all problems were cleared up in 24 hours or less. If the issue was misuse of an existing account, then the situation can be resolved much more quickly than the more complicated cases where the fraudster uses your information to create new accounts. Check out our article What to Do if Your Identity Has Been Stolen for more information about how to handle complicated ID theft.
What Is The Cost Of Identity Theft?
Putting a dollar amount on annual identity theft losses is difficult, but the estimate is about $25 billion. That makes for an average of $1,500 per victim, but not all of that loss is absorbed by individual victims, of course. There is also a cost in time spent resolving the situation – about 12 hours per victim, on average. But isn’t the real damage is psychological? It is emotionally disturbing to be the victim of any crime and one where your perpetrator is an unseen predator can be especially distressing – even though there is no threat of physical harm. Those victims who were able to resolve the theft issue quickly were far less likely to experience the attendant distress associated with identity theft. Those who were the victims of more complicated schemes that took longer to untangle have not been so fortunate. If the resolution process took six months or more, 29 percent experienced “severe emotional distress.”