Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Identity Theft -- Should a Genealogist be Concerned? Part One

As a genealogist and family historian, I regularly deal with detailed information about all kinds of people, both living and dead. Because this information is often shared with others in my family, should I be concerned about identity theft? The answer is not simple.

Criminal identity theft is when personal information is used to fraudulently obtain credit, take out a loan, open accounts, obtain identification or licenses or otherwise pretend to be someone else. Because all of these problems, from theft of a credit card to actually assuming someone's identity are lumped under the category of identity theft, statistics on the prevalence of the crime are almost impossible to decipher.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission compiles statistics and provides free information on how to avoid becoming a victim. Their Website, Fighting Back Against Identity Theft, is a starting point for information on the subject. You may also want to look at the Identity Theft Assistance Center.

In order to get a better picture of the dangers, it is necessary to have some idea of the number of cases. One challenge is finding current statistics. Most of the lists and numbers I found on line dated from 5 or more years ago. The latest statistics, I found, were for 2006. As an example, looking at my state, Arizona, the 2006 statistics showed Arizona number one in incidents per 100,000 of population, with 9,113 victims, which was down from the year before. It is unclear from the statistics whether or not the numbers reported by the states are based on the same criteria. For example, the FBI crime statistics for Phoenix, Arizona for 2006 show 44,961 property crimes out of a population of 1,595,422.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety compiles crime statistics but does not have a category for "Identity Theft" at all. The closest category is that of Impersonation. An interesting note, the Arizona DPS report shows 53,787 motor vehicle thefts in Arizona in 2006, more than the FBI report of property crimes. You can see that defining the crime can significantly change the statistics. The DPS report lists no arrests for "impersonation."

The report of Arizona victims, it turns out, is the number of complaints, not the actual number of crimes. So if someone reports their credit card stolen, then it goes into the category of "identity theft." Additionally, many of the organizations reporting identity theft numbers are actually selling some kind of protection. The numbers get ridiculous, one news story reports that in 2003, 9.9 million people were victims of Identity theft and claims that 25% of the U.S. population has been a victim. (These two numbers don't match obviously). Think about it, since 2003, if the 25% rate was correct, every man woman and child in the U.S. would have been the victim of an identity theft.

I guess I fall into that category, since someone tried to charge one of my credit cards during the past year. The false charge was caught by my bank and my card was cancelled immediately and reissued.

I find people all the time that won't even register for an online service, such as FamilySearch, due to a fear of identity theft. One of the few sources of data on the real threat is a compilation of "How Victims Information is Misused" from the Federal Trade Commission. (Example is from Illinois, see National Chart). Looking at the chart, only 2.2% of all identity theft pertains to the Internet or E-mail in all locations. The total number of complaints for 2006 was 246,035, not anywhere near 25% of the entire population and only slightly more than 5000 of those complaints came from Internet activities.

Stay tuned for Part Two, analysis of the types of identity theft and a genealogist's level of concern.

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