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A staggering 27.3 million Americans have been victims of identity theft in the last five years, according to Federal Trade Commission survey out this week. In the last year alone, 9.9 million people have had their identity purloined.

Identity theft cost businesses and financial institutions nearly $48 billion and consumer victims reported $5 billion in out-of-pocket expenses last year, according to the FTC.

"Identity theft is affecting millions of consumers and costing billions of dollars," said Howard Beales, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "This information can serve to galvanize federal, state, and local law enforcers, the business community, and consumers to work together to combat this menace."

The survey was released in the wake of the formation of an industry coalition to fight online identity theft (involving leading financial services, IT and e-commerce companies) earlier this week. Microsoft Corp, eBay, Amazon.com and Visa are among founder members of the Coalition on Online Identity Theft.

Since 1998, the FTC has had an Identity Theft Program to assist victims. The organisation provides law enforcement training, maintains a nationwide database of ID theft complaints available to law enforcement and refers complaints to criminal law enforcement agencies. The FTC also maintains an identity theft web site.

A number of laws limit liability for consumer victims of identity theft. Not all costs are covered, however. The survey reviewed the different impact on victims who had existing accounts misused and those victims where the thieves opened new accounts in their names. Where the thieves opened new accounts, the per-victim dollar loss to both businesses and victims was higher and the time spent resolving the problems was greater.

For all forms of identity theft, the loss to business was $4,800 and the loss to consumers was $500, on average.

While most identity thieves use consumer personal information to make purchases, the survey reports that 15 per cent of all victims - almost 1.5 million people in the last year - reported that their personal information was misused in non-financial ways, to obtain government documents, for example, or on tax forms. The most common non-financial misuse took place when the thief used the victim's name and identifying information when stopped by law enforcement or caught committing a crime.

Sixty-seven per cent of identity theft victims - more than 6.5 million victims in the last year - report that existing credit card accounts were misused and 19 per cent reported that checking or savings accounts were misused.

The survey reports that 51 per cent of the victims - about 5 million victims - say they know how their personal information was obtained. Nearly one quarter of all victims - roughly 2.5 million people in the last year - said their information was lost or stolen, including lost or stolen credit cards, cheque books or social security cards. Stolen mail was the source of information for identity thieves in 4 percent of all victims - 400,000 in the last year.

The FTC survey summary is here. ®

Related stories

MS, eBay, Amazon et al join ID theft busters
UK.gov urged to crack down on ID theft
ID thieves rip off 7m US adults a year
US arrests 130 in Net fraud crackdown
ID theft: a $1bn a year crime
Feds break massive identity fraud
Trainee dishwasher pleads guilty to $80m identity fraud

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