Identity Theft Most-Frequent Consumer Scam; District Leads in Crime That Nearly Doubles over Year
Byline: Jeffrey Sparshott, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Identity-theft complaints nearly doubled from 2001 to 2002 and were the most common fraud complaint reported by American consumers last year, a government agency said yesterday.
The District has the highest rate of identity-theft complaints in the nation, the agency report said. Credit-card fraud, bank fraud, and phone or utility fraud topped the list of complaints from District consumers.
Washington's residents also were victimized by government documents and benefits, and loans illegally obtained.
Identify theft or identity fraud involves stealing another person's identifying information - such as a Social Security number, date of birth and mother's name - and then using it to establish credit, run up debt or take over existing financial accounts.
Nationwide, consumer-fraud complaints jumped more than 70 percent to 380,000 in 2002, and the dollar loss grew to $343 million, the Federal Trade Commission said. Identity theft accounted for 43 percent of all complaints, the FTC said.
The FTC collected its numbers from a government database of complaints.
The higher number of complaints stems at least in part from greater awareness of identity theft, FTC outreach efforts and better reporting, said J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Even with greater awareness, the prevalence of identity theft is difficult to gauge.
A government report released last year showed that some individuals do not know they have been victimized until months after the fact, and some choose not to report the crime.
Estimates of total victims - those reporting and those not reporting - range from 250,000 to 750,000 victims annually, the General Accounting Office report said.
"There really aren't good statistics on identity theft," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based organization.
James H. Vaules, a former supervisor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's white-collar-crime section, said identity theft is a rapidly growing crime because the information is so readily available. …