Last year 9.9 million Americans were identity theft victims. That's an increase of 22 percent over 2007, according to the 2009 Identity Fraud Survey Report released by Javelin Strategy & Research, which specializes in financial services topics. The report notes one significant factor likely contributing to the rise in economic misfortune - historically higher fraud rates occur when the economy worsens.
The average time it takes to restore an identity once it's been compromised is 264 hours, says Tom Stone, the executive director of the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association (FBI-LEEDA). Identity theft also is expensive. Financial institutions and businesses lost more than $48 billion last year while individuals lost $5 billion.
There are other costs as well. One woman became a victim of identity theft 10 years ago and did everything she could to straighten out "her" bad credit scores. When she finally was able to get a loan to purchase a new home, her mortgage interest rate was higher because of her low credit score. Every month she writes a check for her mortgage she's paying the price of identity theft. With identity theft, victimization doesn't seem to end.
Investigators are now seeing many victims, who after getting their credit straightened out and recovering their good name, are targeted again.
Identity theft summits
Taking a proactive approach to the problem, FBI-LEEDA along with LifeLock, an identity theft protection company, is hosting identity theft summits with a 6-hour session for law enforcement followed by a town hall meeting open to the public. The summitshelp educate law enforcement both as consumers and officers taking on this rapidly increasing problem.
Stone, a retired police chief and officer with 33 years of experience, advises, "You must be acutely aware that this crime is going to have a huge effect on your community. You need to train your personnel and try to come up with the resources to address it when it takes place … and when people in their community become victims."
Local, state and federal law enforcement professionals (often from fraud units) have attended these summits throughout the country. More are on the calendar this year, at least one per month, and Stone anticipates about 20 will be scheduled for 2010. (See "Training" at www.leedafbi.org.)
Gregory Smith, chief of investigations for the Nevada Attorney General's Office, notes networking was one of the biggest benefits of the Las Vegas summit, where 20 agencies were able to exchange ideas.
LifeLock CEO Todd Davis is enthusiastic about private and public enterprise working together to help end identity theft.
"We have the chance to win this war," he says. "If we collectively work together, these criminals are going to understand that not only are we making the crime more difficult to commit, they're going to have a better chance of getting caught, and as we work with legislatures there will be greater penalties."
It can happen to anyone
Fully understanding identity theft means understanding that it could happen to you. Everyone with a Social Security number can become a victim - even children. It doesn't matter what your credit rating is. It doesn't matter if you're a law enforcement officer.
Harris County Sheriff's Office Capt. Debra Schmidt, who helped host a recent summit in Humble, Texas, was a victim of identity theft two years ago. She received an e-mail congratulating her on buying a new watch. The e-mail text said, "If you didn't buy a watch, 'click here,'" so she did. That's all it took for her personal and bank account information to be stolen.
"Fortunately, when I told a friend about it the next morning, she told me I had been robbed of my identity," she says. "I immediately took steps to secure my bank accounts and identity. Here I was a veteran officer and just a click away from being a victim."