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

Friday, September 2, 2011

Another Brush with Identity Theft?

Underlying a lot of the contact I have with genealogists is an often unspoken concern about privacy caused by a fear of the so-called Identity Theft issue. We recently had another instance where a credit card was compromised with unauthorized purchases. Did that have anything to do with my genealogy online or anywhere else? No, as a matter of fact, it didn't. There are plenty of ways for a credit card and its security number to be compromised, none of which have anything to do with Identity Theft or genealogy. In this case, the most like culprit was a store clerk who copied down the numbers and either used them or sold them online.

We were alerted to the problem by an email from the credit card company. After a short investigation, essentially a few minutes on the phone, we have a new card on its way. Someone may lose some money, but it won't be us.

So, why is this called Identity Theft with capital letters? In my opinion, it is simply because identity theft sounds much more ominous than credit card theft and can be used to scare people into buying all sorts of insurance and other products. The commercials on TV make it sound like someone is impersonating you and buying a house or a car or worse. So the question becomes how prevalent is the real identity theft? It has been a while since I wrote about this problem, so I decided to check into the statistics again.

The first step in investigating the seriousness of identity theft is to wade through the huge number of companies that are trying to sell you something. Any statistics from a company whose business is to sell you protection, will likely be unreliable as to the true scope of the problem. The first thing I found was that overall identity fraud incidents decreased in the United States in 2010. So where to go to get accurate (as possible) statistics? How about the U.S. Department of Justice? Yep, that is where you go, the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

First thing we find out is that the term "identity theft" refers to three types of incidents:
  • unauthorized use or attempted use of existing credit cards
  • unauthorized use or attempted use of other existing accounts, such as checking accounts
  • misuse of personal information to obtain new accounts or loans, or to commit other crimes.
Reading further we find out that about 53% of all the incidents were in the first category. Unfortunately, they lump attempts in with actual incidents, but it looks like over half of the incidents involved use of a credit card number.  Only about 1/4 of the victims of identity theft suffered any actual out-of-pocket loss. Only 30% of the victims reported that the perpetrator obtained more than $500 in goods or services. But guess what? All of the statistics are from 2008! Even though the study date is in December of 2010. Why aren't more recent figures available? Let's just say that if you sort through all of the data, you soon begin to realize that what the largest percentage of the cases they are calling identity theft involve physically stealing a wallet or purse or credit card. The longer you look at the statistics, the smaller the number of "identity thefts" appears that involves taking a person's identity rather than a credit card.

So what about all the people out there living in fear that some one will steal their identity and empty out their bank account? It could happen but the incidence is very low except for credit card theft.

So what does this mean to genealogists. It still makes sense not to put compromising personal information in online genealogy files. Follow the maxim to never put information online about living persons and you will be fairly safe.

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