The government says 1 out of every 14 Americans age 16 or older was a target or a victim of identity theft, a crime imposing a heavy emotional toll on many of its victims.
According to a national household survey of 70,000 people issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, identity theft resulted in $24.7 billion in financial losses last year. The crime affected 16.6 million people and fell most heavily on households with annual incomes of $75,000 or more. In that income bracket, 10 percent of such households were victimized.
The survey counted both attempted and successful incidents of identity theft.
Two-thirds of identity theft victims experienced financial losses, which averaged $1,769.
For many victims, the size of the loss was eclipsed by concerns that someone had stolen their identity and that it might take weeks or months to repair the damage.
Among victims who spent six months or more resolving financial and credit problems stemming from identity theft, 47 percent experienced severe emotional distress, compared with 4 percent who spent a day or less resolving problems.
Victims experienced a wide range of issues having to do with credit, banking, debt collectors, even cutoffs in utility service. In general, victims whose personal information, such as a Social Security number, was misused were more likely to experience financial, legal or other difficulties, according to the bureau.
Ten percent of victims spent more than a month clearing up associated problems. A majority spent a day or less. Victims whose personal information was used to open a new account or for other fraudulent purposes spent an average of about 30 hours resolving problems. Victims of existing credit card account misuse spent an average of three hours resolving problems.
The full extent of identity theft is unknown because a bank often will reimburse the victim for any loss and the crime is never reported to the police, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, whose members include the heads of large and smaller police departments.
According to the report, 1 in 10 identity theft victims reported the incident to police, while 9 in 10 victims contacted a credit card company or bank to report misuse or attempted misuse of an account or personal information.
“What we’re seeing here is the exponential growth of information technology, and with that comes the ability to be hacked,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a research organization.
Bueermann said that “at one point in the past, people lived in places where they didn’t lock their doors.”
“Over time, they started to lock them,” he said. “We’ll come to the same place in our digital life, hopefully sooner.”
Less than 10 percent of victims bought identity theft protection or used an identity theft security program on their computer after being victimized, according to the survey. Of people interviewed in the survey, 85 percent took one or more preventative actions such as changing passwords on financial accounts or examining bank or credit statements.
Theft involving existing credit cards and bank accounts made up for the vast majority of the 16.6 million victims.
About 7.7 million victims reported the fraudulent use of a credit card, and 7.5 million reported the fraudulent use of a bank account such as a debit card, checking account or savings.