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Analyst: Crime pays for identity thieves

A research report finds that 3.4 percent of U.S. consumers--as many as 7 million adults--have been a victim of identity theft in the past year. Most theft goes unreported and unpunished

The number of consumers who have fallen prey to identity thieves is severely underreported, market researcher Gartner said in a survey released Monday.

The research firm estimates that 3.4 percent of U.S. consumers--about 7 million adults--have been victims of identity theft of some form in the past year. Moreover, arrests in identity theft cases are extremely rare, catching the perpetrator in only one out of every 700 cases, said Avivah Litan, vice president of financial service for Gartner.

"The odds are really stacked against the consumers," she said. "Unfortunately, they are the only ones with a vested interest in fixing the problem."

The release of the survey comes as state and federal governments are trying to stem the problem of identity theft. On July 1, California started requiring companies to report to consumers any incident that may have compromised their personal data. And new national legislation, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, would help protect victims once they determined that their identity had been stolen.

The Gartner report ups the ante in consumers' battle for protection. While the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's clearinghouse for crimes against consumers has received more than 160,000 reports of identity theft, the real number is much higher, according to the company.

Gartner interviewed more than 2,400 U.S. adults for the survey in May 2003 and found that 3.4 percent had been a victim of identity theft in the past year. If that fraction holds for the entire United States, then some 7 million adults have had their identity stolen during that time. The company defines identity theft as a financial crime in which thieves represent themselves as the victims by stealing critical private information, such as social security numbers, driver's license numbers, addresses, credit card numbers or bank account numbers.

Consumers typically learn of identity theft long after the crime has been perpetrated. The FTC found that most victims don't know that their identity has been stolen until more than a year later, on average.

"It is different from payment fraud, where the thief takes a credit card number and consumers are innocent until proven guilty," Litan said. "With identity theft, it is the opposite: Consumers are thought to be guilty until proven innocent."

The credit card industry, banks and other financial firms are mishandling the problem, according to the Gartner report. They don't recognize fraud as a crime against their consumers, but rather as an expense of doing business. While credit card fraud is frequently perpetrated without identity theft, the industry doesn't typically distinguish between the two. Gartner found that 5.5 percent of the U.S. adults surveyed, or 11 million nationally, were victims of credit card fraud.

"There is a serious disconnect between the magnitude of identity theft that innocent consumers experience and the industry's proper recognition of the crime," Litan stated in the report. "Without external pressure from legislators and industry associations, financial services providers may not have sufficient incentive to stem the flow of identity theft crimes."