WASHINGTON – Just because the number of identity theft complaints nearly doubled in the last year doesn't mean that the crime is being committed more frequently, said an official at the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency tasked with tracking the crime.
"It may be growing, it may be not. We can't tell from the complaint data that we have," said J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
What data the agency does have raises eyebrows. In just three years since the commission started collecting information on identity theft, the number of complaints has risen to 43 percent of total fraud reported, or 162,000 out of 380,000 total complaints in 2002. That's nearly twice the 86,000 identity fraud complaints in 2001, and 4 percent more of the total number of fraud complaints from the previous year.
Identity theft costs victims an average $1,000 in expenses to take care of the damages from stolen credit cards, swiped utility bills and theft of government and bank information.
The District of Columbia had the highest rate of identity theft in 2002 with 123 victims for every 100,000 people or 844 victims. California and Arizona followed with 91 and 88 victims per 100,000 people, respectively.
Maryland ranked ninth in the rate of victims, with nearly 4,000 people defrauded out of their funds by someone using their identity. While its ranking dropped from fourth place in the prior year, state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran said criminals may be taking Maryland residents to the cleaners because of their relatively high incomes.
"I would think we are probably a higher-income state, and [criminals] are inclined to use a higher-income person than a person of moderate means," Curran said.
For victims, whatever their financial outlook, the situation leaves them feeling violated — and adding insult to injury, victims of identity theft have virtually no recourse unless the thief is caught.
"This is a crime that is almost solely on the shoulders of the victim to resolve," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based consumer group. "They're beleaguered, they're tired, they're angry and it takes them a good deal of time to recover."
One such beleaguered victim is 40-year-old Alexandra May, an office equipment saleswoman in Cupertino, Calif., whose identity was given away by the department of motor vehicles, which gave a duplicate driver's license to a woman who looked nothing like her. The woman then stole $4,000 from May's bank account, rented a car under her name and then crashed it. That was in 1997.
"I went to rent a car a few months later and was almost arrested," May said. This month, May is finally expected to get a new driver's license and a clean record from the DMV.
Beales said consumers should not leave credit card receipts with their account number lying around. Bank account numbers and Social Security numbers should not be given out without a good reason.
But Beales said some information is stolen from within legitimate businesses by unscrupulous employees, which points to the need to check credit reports from time to time.
"What we're seeing increasingly is identity theft because some insider steals information and sells it," Beales said. "It's a significant law enforcement problem and a significant business education problem."
Awareness by law enforcement has led to some results. In November, federal authorities in New York busted three men accused of stealing credit card information from 30,000 people. It was the largest identity theft case in U.S. history.
While often the crime is not discovered until the bill collector comes knocking at the door, Beales said that more people are becoming aware of the problem and reporting it to one of 630 agencies that report the information to the FTC. Individuals may also file a complaint online at www.ftc.org or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).
Lawmakers and government officials are also seeking to do more to prevent and prosecute identity theft.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has asked the FTC to issue and enforce security guidelines for businesses that collect sensitive financial information. The guidelines would include employee background checks and restricting access to customer information. If that fails, he will offer legislation to tighten corporate security.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., will introduce several bills in the next few weeks seeking greater protections for Social Security numbers and stiffer penalties for identity thieves, spokesman Howard Gantman said.
Last spring, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered federal prosecutors to speed up investigations and trials of people accused of stealing identities.
Some of the other fraud reported to the FTC included Internet auctions, catalog sales, magazine sales, credit protection services, and lotteries. The commission said fraud cost Americans $343 million last year.
Fox News' Elizabeth A. Shack and The Associated Press contributed to this report.