The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) operates a secure online database that is open only to law enforcement agencies that stores details of millions of consumer complaints. The Consumer Sentinel Network (CSN) stores complaints received by the FTC itself, other Federal agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, Canada's Anti-Fraud Centre, as well as complaints received by state law enforcement organizations, the Offices of the Attorneys General for California, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio and Washington. It also gets data from private organizations including Better Business Bureaus throughout the U.S.
Begun in 1997 to collect fraud and identity theft complaints, the CSN now has more than 8 million complaints on file. The CSN has a five-year data retention policy; complaints older than five years are purged biannually. It must be noted that the database contains unverified complaints reported by consumers.
While only law enforcement can access the database, the CSN issues an annual report, the Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, and its most recent edition, covering calendar 2012, is now out. Most of the numbers are in line with what has been reported in the past, but a couple of fact about identity theft put the crime in a different light from what you might expect.
To start, in 2012 the CSN received more than two million consumer complaints which were sorted into 30 complaint categories. Eighteen percent of the complaints received — 369,132 to be precise — were identity theft complaints. The largest category, fraud complaints, comprised more than half of the complaints received (52%), but an examination shows that many of these contained elements of identity theft.
The database further breaks down the identity theft complaints into subcategories: Government documents/benefits fraud (46%), credit card fraud (13%), phone or utilities fraud (10%), and bank fraud (6%), employment-related fraud (5%) and loan fraud (2%).
The report notes that the current phony tax return epidemic resulted in a 27 percent increase in the government documents fraud reports since 2010. At the same time it appears that stolen identities are being used less to secure employment as there has been a 6 percent drop in employment-related fraud complaints.
Now some of the other significant findings are surprising.
We tend to think of victims as primarily older persons living in big cities. But of the identity theft complaints received, only nine percent come from those over the age of 70, and 17 percent from those 60-69. But half, 50%, come from complainants ages 20-49 and the largest group filing identity theft complaints, 23 percent of the total, are ages 50-59.
The other factor that runs somewhat counter to popular belief is that identity theft is not confined to major urban areas. A very sizable percent of complaints come from rural areas.
A troubling statistic is that 42 percent of those recording complaints said that they contacted law enforcement — 68 percent of which contacted local police. But of this number only 54 percent said the police had taken a report. That figure would seem to confirm that local police are still not taking identity theft as seriously as they should.
On a per capita basis, Florida has, by far, the largest number of identity theft complaints (69,795), followed by Georgia, California, Michigan, New York, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, Maryland and Alabama rounding out the top ten. The fewest on a per capita basis: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Hawaii.