Do We Overemphasize the Threat of Online Identity Theft?

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Much is made in the media of the threat of falling victim to identity theft when shopping online or using the Internet in general. While the possibility of becoming a victim of fraud online is very real, researchers are indicating that the Internet is still not the primary place where people are likely to have their identities stolen.

Andrea Sinisi, vice president of marketing at Bensinger DuPont & Associates, said research by her firm indicates online methods account for only 11 percent of identity theft.

“That’s really what’s hyped in the media: the fact that transactions are being done online, you need to look at what Web sites [Internet users shop on], make sure they’re reputable [and] make sure they’re protected; but still, a number of these things are occurring just from someone getting your information [such as a] a credit card number from a personal document,” Sinisi said.

Bensinger DuPont & Associates’ research has found that stolen wallets and physical documents account for 43 percent of all identify theft. “The low-tech methods for stealing information are still the most popular,” she said.

Online identity theft may be focused on in the media and by people in general due to the explosive growth of the Internet itself, which may make the problem look larger than it actually is. “Because so much more commerce is going online, when you see a rise [in online identity theft], it looks like a bigger percentage than it may truly be,” Sinisi said. “It does look like a spike because it’s something that wasn’t happening as frequently before. It’s a newer trend [than] getting a wallet stolen [or] having someone get ahold of your Social Security number so they could open a credit card in your name.”

Meanwhile, identity theft overall continues to rise in frequency. Bensinger DuPont & Associates’ research showed a 22 percent increase from 2007 to 2008; there were almost 10 million victims in 2008; and 71 percent of the fraud happens within a week of stealing the victim’s personal data. “So you need to act fast to get the recovery under way once you’re notified of it,” Sinisi said.

Furthermore, identity theft is likely to emerge close to home. Sinisi cited a study by the Identity Theft Resource Center in which almost 40 percent of respondents indicated that the person who stole their identity was a friend or family member.

To avoid falling victim to identity theft, Sinisi advised individuals to exercise due diligence in protecting themselves. Ironically, the first step in doing so is going online. “It’s important for individuals to look out for their identity,” she said. “To take steps to protect it, [they should] look to see if their employer offers a program that has online resources for how to protect it, and then use those resources if there is an event that occurs. It can help them save a lot of time, frustration and emotional stress when they try to get everything taken care of.”

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