Identity Theft Tops U.S. Consumer Fraud Complaints

Identity theft was the most common type of U.S. consumer fraud complaint in 2001, federal statistics released Wednesday showed.

Hijacking of personal information for fraud or theft made up 42 percent of the 204,000 fraud complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, last year.

Identity-theft complaints grew from 23 percent of the FTC's Consumer Sentinel database in 2000, when the problem also topped the list of consumer fraud headaches.

"It's when bad things happen to your good name," Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, told a news conference. "One thing you can do to protect yourself ... is check by getting a copy of your credit report to see if you know about all the stuff that's there."

Beales said the majority of identity theft occurred off-line with criminals intercepting mail or skimming data from carelessly discarded credit card receipts. Some scam artists bluff their way past bank tellers and credit bureaus.

Armed with Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and other confidential personal information, crooks can then apply for credit cards or bank loans, set up cell phone service or pass bad checks under someone else's name.

Recent victims include Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods.

Complaints about identity theft in 2001 outpaced Internet auctions, which accounted for 10 percent of consumer gripes; Internet services, at 7 percent; and shop-at-home and catalog offers, which made up 6 percent of the database.

But Beales cautioned against jumping to conclusions about how prevalent identity theft was.

"Whether this is a growing problem or not is really hard to tell from our data because the number of overall complaints is growing but that's partly because we're trying harder and harder to get reports," he said.