Fewer people were victims of identity theft last year than in 2010, but each person lost substantially more money, according to a new report by the California Public Interest Research Group.
The higher dollar amount is mostly attributed to an increase in new account fraud, in which criminals use a victim's personal information and good credit to create new accounts and make purchases, rather than hacking into existing accounts. New account fraud can go on for months because perpetrators usually use a different mailing address when applying for new accounts, so the victim never sees the bills, the report says.
In 2010, victims lost about $82 per person. Last year, they lost about $786 per person, according to the report, which was released yesterday.
"Typically, the financial loss to the consumer is going to be greater because it's more difficult to detect new account fraud than existing account fraud," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
According to the report, almost 1,000 cases of identity theft were investigated in 2011, less than half the number of the year before. Those investigations resulted in 229 convictions. The majority of convictions – 130 – were in Sacramento Valley.
Last year, there were about 10,000 victims of identity theft statewide, the report states. The region with the largest portion of those victims was Silicon Valley, with nearly 6,000. In Southern California, victims lost the most money, with an average of about $4,000 per victim.
Jon Fox, consumer advocate for CALPIRG, said one of the obstacles to compiling the report was the lack of a centralized database for identity theft statistics. He said most identity theft reports are based on statistical approximation.
But this report, with help from the state’s High Technology Theft Apprehension and Prosecution Program, is based on data from local police departments. But each department reports identity theft slightly differently – either as wire fraud, computer fraud, fraud or credit card theft – and without details. In its report, CALPIRG recommends creating a centralized statewide database where law enforcement agencies can file identity theft investigations.
The report also recommends tougher state regulations regarding identity theft and more resources and funding to combat it.
"It's an old problem that's taking a new shape," Fox said. "How criminals were preying on people was different, but we'd be having the same conversation 10 years ago."
He said the main goal of the report is to educate people about preventing identity theft in the online world. "Like, for example, paying a bill online on free Wi-Fi at the airport just isn't a good idea," he said.
Stephens said the best way to protect against new account fraud is setting up credit report freezes. That means that you can't receive any new credit cards, loans, mortgages or other credit-based accounts unless you unfreeze the credit. It can be a pain, Stephens said, but it's the only secure way to prevent identity theft.
“It’s a huge, huge problem,” Stephens said. “Unlike existing account fraud, it can take the victim literally hundreds of hours to remedy.”
CALPIRG recommends consumers take several precautions, including:
- Avoid paper billing by requesting secure electronic statements instead. If you still require hard copies, you can print them and store them safely rather than risk mail theft.
- Use unique, hard-to-guess passwords that include a combination of letters, numbers and symbols. Avoid using the same password across multiple accounts, and change your passwords once or twice per year.
- Disable Bluetooth connections on devices when not in use.
- Fight “skimmers” by not handing your debit card to a server or anyone who could have a handheld skimming device (which reads information embedded in a card's magnetic strip) out of sight. When using ATMs, touch it to see if all the parts are solid and not add-ons. Always cover the hand typing the password, look for suspicious holes or cameras, and avoid using ATMs in unsupervised locations.
CALPIRG advises victims of identity theft to file a police report and notify the Federal Trade Commission, which has on online complaint form. For more information on identity theft, visit http://www.calpirg.org/idtheft.
This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.