A local newspaper just featured a front-page article on identity theft. This reminded me that I hadn't written on how this topic impacts genealogists for a while, at least for about a year. First of all, what is identity theft? The term itself is quite vague and used to cover a huge number of anti-social and some few criminal activities. In addition, the idea of identity theft is usually raised any time there is a news report of a major computer hacking operation. The threat of identity theft is commonly used as a bogeyman to scare people by commercial enterprises who profit from people's fear, real or otherwise.
Rather than ask "what is identity theft," I would ask if there is a commonly accepted definition at all? I would also ask if there are any statistics about the frequency of whatever is defined as identity theft and statistics on the actual damages suffered by "victims of identity theft." Knowing about these statistics when compared to the other dangers of our modern world, will go a long way towards establishing a basis for any needed action.
In looking back at my previous posts on the subject, I am also interested to see if there are any updated statistics or changes in the definition of identity theft. Then, I need to evaluate whether or not participating in genealogy online raises the threat of having your identity stolen or whatever.
First of all, you need to understand that all of the "statistics" about identity theft and any other related activity are based on complaints, not arrests and certainly not on criminal convictions. So, complaints, well-founded or spurious, are the real issue here. Here is a quote from the Federal Trade Commissions, Consumer Sentinel Network.
Consumer Sentinel is a secure online database of millions of consumer complaints available only to law enforcement. Complaints in Consumer Sentinel are about:Unfortunately, all of these statistics are only available to approved organizations. So where do we go to find out about identity theft?
- Identity Theft
- Do-Not-Call Registry Violations
- Computers, the Internet, and Online Auctions
- Telemarketing Scams
- Advance-fee Loans and Credit Scams
- Sweepstakes, Lotteries, and Prizes
- Business Opportunities and Work-at-Home Schemes
- Health and Weight Loss Products
- NOW AVAILABLE: All consumer complaints filed with the FTC about financial issues, such as credit reports, debt collection, financial institutions, and lending.
We might look at the U.S. Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, but the most recent statistics are from 2014. Here is the summary of what the entire report shows:
- About 7% of persons age 16 or older were victims of identity theft in 2014, similar to findings in 2012.
- The majority of identity theft victims (86%) experienced the fraudulent use of existing account information, such as credit card or bank account information.
- The number of elderly victims of identity theft increased from 2.1 million in 2012 to 2.6 million in 2014.
- About 14% of identity theft victims experienced out-of-pocket losses of $1 or more. Of these victims, about half suffered losses of less than $100.
- Half of identity theft victims who were able to resolve any associated problems did so in a day or less.
OK, so reading this from 2014, you can see that 7% of the over 16 years of age population back in 2014 complained about identity theft (remember victims of identity theft is measured by complaints). of that 7%, 86% of the complaints involved credit cards or bank accounts. Only 14% of the 7% or .0098 or about less than 1% of the complaints involves losses of more than $1. About half of the 7% or about 3.5% suffered losses of over $100.
Hmm. Are there any other statistics? Well, the above statistics actually do not come from counting any sort of complaint, they actually come from a survey: the National Crime Victimization Survey. This points up an important fact:
Always check the sources.
Does this sound like a good genealogical research policy? It is also a good idea when attempting to verify any statistics, government or otherwise.
Once again, are there any current statistics on the actual incidence of identity theft and is there a definition of identity theft?
Let's look at a representative news story: "Identity theft hit an all-time high in 2016" from USA Today. From the headline, you might suspect that there were some statistics out there to support such a claim. Read the article. The entire article (and by the way, the one on the front page of the local newspaper I mentioned above) is supported by data from the Javelin Strategy and Research company. Here is a summary of that company from their website:
Javelin Strategy & Research is a research-based advisory firm that helps its clients to make informed decisions in a digital financial world. Our analysts offer objective, strategic and, above all, actionable insights and unearth opportunities to sustainably increase profits.Isn't this sort of like asking an insurance salesman if you need insurance or an attorney if you need legal advice? If you keep reading on their website, once again, the supposed statistics come from a survey.
Now, if you think about it, if identity theft is theft then wouldn't there be some statistics about crime?
Actually, it is quite a challenge to find actual crime statistics. The FTC is still using data from 2006 to 2008. See Frederal Trade Commission, Identity Theft and Data Security. So how about the FBI or the Justice Department?
The FBI has crime statistics for 2016. However, there is no obvious mention of identity theft. If identity theft is such an important and prominent crime, why isn't it mentioned in the FBI's report? Here is a screenshot of the actual report page:
Where does "identity theft" fit into the crime statistics? Oh, by the way, property crime figures are in dramatic decline in the United States according to the FBI.
What is identity theft if it isn't a crime? Actually, many states have tried to define it and make it a crime. Here is one definition from the Utah Criminal Code:
76-6-1102. Identity fraud crime.
76-6-1102. Identity fraud crime.
|(1)||As used in this part, "personal identifying information" may include:|
|(3)||Identity fraud is:|
|(4)||Multiple violations may be aggregated into a single offense, and the degree of the offense is determined by the total value of all credit, goods, services, or any other thing of value used, or attempted to be used, through the multiple violations.|
|(5)||When a defendant is convicted of a violation of this section, the court shall order the defendant to make restitution to any victim of the offense or state on the record the reason the court does not find ordering restitution to be appropriate.|
|(6)||Restitution under Subsection (5) may include:|
How many people were charged with and/or convicted of this crime in Utah since 2015 when this law was passed? Here is an infographic of the current number:
Once again, these numbers do not reflect arrests or convictions, they are reports to an online website. Going around the circle, remember that the Bureau of Justice Statistics on identity theft date back to 2014. The situation is that the term identity theft is used for everything from losing a credit card to elder abuse.
Over the years since identity theft became an issue, there has been little or no consensus on the definition, there is no consistent measure of arrests and convictions, and there are statistics that show that all forms of property crimes are decreasing.
Should genealogists be worried? Not any more than the general population. Should the general population be worried? No more than usual. We still need to be cautious about sharing personal information with anyone not obviously authorized and refrain from including information about living relatives online and continue to maintain reasonable personal security measures such as avoiding online fraud etc.
What would be nice is if the banks would quit using relatives names and surnames as "security questions."