Identity-theft victims find that they are often on their own, new survey shows

Many haven't recovered identities, others spend time, money on problem

July 29, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN FRANCISCO - Identity-theft victims are often on their own when it comes to discovering the crime and can expect to spend months restoring their identities, according to a new survey of victims.

More than half of victims surveyed said they discovered on their own that an identity thief had struck them, according to the online survey of 1,097 victims in 10 metropolitan areas, conducted for Nationwide Mutual Insurance by MarketTool.

And 28 percent said they haven't restored their identities, despite spending an average of a year working on the problem. Overall, victims spent an average of 81 hours - 10 working days - trying to resolve their cases.

Respondents were 21 or older and had been a victim of an identity thief within the past three years.

Many consumers these days expect a call from their credit-card company when they make unusually large charges or buy in a foreign country. But that service isn't always enough to catch identity thieves.

Only 17 percent of the victims surveyed were notified by a creditor or financial institution of suspicious account activity and, on average, 5 1/2 months passed before victims realized they had been defrauded.

About 29 percent of the victims said they noticed unusual charges on their credit card, and 23 percent noticed money missing from their checking or savings account.

Thirty percent of those surveyed said their identity was stolen over the Internet, and 16 percent said their credit-card information was stolen by a worker at the company where they made a purchase.

Another 21 percent said data were stolen from their home, car, mailbox, trash or from a wallet or purse.

While many consumers assume credit-card companies and other financial institutions will reimburse any fraudulent charges, that's not always the case.

Most victims were not held responsible for the average of almost $4,000 charged by identity thieves.

But on average, victims paid $587 in out-of-pocket charges for legal fees, copying charges, telephone calls and lost wages. And 16 percent of victims were forced to pay an average of $6,440 to cover thieves' purchases, the survey said.

"There's a feeling most people have, which is, you have out-of-pocket expenses for time and trouble, maybe for an attorney to help you through the maze, but that most of these financial institutions don't make you pay anything," said Kirk Herath, chief privacy officer at Nationwide, which is based in Columbus, Ohio.

But that's not always true. "In the case of debit cards it's hard to prove fraud sometimes. I think that's where a lot of [these charges] come in," he said.

Twenty-seven percent of the victims said thieves had accessed their checking or savings accounts, and 55 percent said fraudulent charges were made on existing credit cards.

Thieves often make it difficult to detect a problem unless consumers keep a careful eye on account statements. "They'll often make small purchases on a lot of cards, stuff that would be buried in your monthly statement," Herath said. "Something that you would glance over quickly for $20 or $30."

The survey focused on victims in these 10 metro areas nationwide: Austin, Texas; Harrisburg, Pa.; Hartford, Conn.; Indianapolis; Nashville, Tenn.; the Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro areas in North Carolina; Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati in Ohio; Orlando, Fla.; Phoenix; and Salt Lake City.

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