One of the greatest challenges in my job at the Identity Theft Resource Center has been overcoming consumer apathy when it comes to concern regarding identity theft.
There are many reasons why the public remains nonplussed. Chief among them is the notion, perpetuated by inaccurate measurement tools, that crime is decreasing, and therefore identity theft is not a growing threat.
Articles and reports regarding the overall crime rate decreasing in the United States and identity theft rates contradict each other. How is it possible for the crime rate in the U.S. to be on a steady decline while identity theft incidents are increasing dramatically year over year?
We have the answer: It’s not.
The Crime in the United States report categorizes crime into two major types: violent crime and property crime. The report indicates that both violent crime and property crime rates continue to decrease even during the recession. The offenses used as metrics to measure the overall Property crime rate are: burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.
In 2012 there were 6.1 million reported larceny theft offenses. To the casual observer the Larceny Theft offense would appear to capture the important theft-related crimes occurring in this country. However, when you read the actual definition of what this offense captures, you will see a key type of theft missing:
Larceny-theft is defined as the unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another. Examples are theft of bicycles, motor vehicle parts, and accessories, shoplifting, pocket-picking, or the stealing of any property or article that is not taken by force and violence, or by fraud.
Embezzlement, confidence games, forgery and check fraud etc., are excluded. The rate of fraud and identity theft in particular are not captured in this report, but there are other measurement tools. Two of the most useful ones are the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Report, a publication that gathers data from various other entities that take fraud complaints, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (another department within the USDOJ) reports.*
Identity theft, a very specific type of fraud, has been ranked as the #1 complaint reported to the FTC for the past 13 years.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics uses the National Crime Victimization Survey to capture and report its statistics on identity theft. The last report available captures information from 2005-2010. The NCVS collects data regarding financial identity theft only. While this is far and away the most prevalent type of identity theft, there are other categories that affect a significant number of victims such as Medical and Government identity theft.
According to this latest report, approximately 8.6 million households experienced an incident of financial identity theft.
The latest statistics available are from 2012 Javelin Strategy & Research Inc., an independent organization not affiliated with the federal government. Their study concluded that there were 12.6 million incidents of identity fraud. This is more than double the total number of all larceny-theft offenses reported in 2012.
The exclusion of fraud and identity theft as a metric for this report is giving the public a skewed perception. Overall crime rates are not decreasing, we simply are not using the proper metrics to capture the true scope of the problem.
The original analysis regarding which offense classifications to use as the metric for overall measurement began in the 1929 and the three offenses of Burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft were chosen. At the time, these classifications would provide for a reasonably accurate assessment. In 1979 Arson as the fourth metric.
This country still measures its overall property crime the same way it did in 1929. The way we conduct business, travel, and communicate has changed immeasurably in the 80 years. The infiltration of technology into our daily lives has changed the way we live. It has also changed the way crimes are being committed. Much like water, criminal elements will take the path of least resistance. When law enforcement and society become adept at suppressing scofflaws by making a particular crime more difficult to commit, such as through anti-theft devices on cars, criminals move on to other crimes.
Non-violent crimes rates haven’t decreased; they have just changed.
Whereas the criminal of 20 years ago was armed with a knife or a gun, today’s criminal is armed with a keyboard or skimming device. The weapon(s) of choice has changed from tools of violence to tools of technology. Criminals aren’t committing fewer criminal acts, just different ones. We don’t have fewer criminals, only smarter ones.
*The FBI has a Financial Crimes Report that is listed under its “Other Reports and Publications” section. Other offense data for fraud and fraud type offenses is captured in the FBI’s NIBRS (National Incident-Based Reporting System); however, identity theft is not one of the incidents types captured.
The Financial Crimes Report(s) differ in format from the violent crime/property crime format in the UCR.
The NIBRS report for 2011 indicates there is data on the following fraud type offenses: Bribery – 293; Counterfeiting/Forgery – 74,131; Embezzlement – 17,000; Extortion – 1217, and Fraud Offenses 245,301. Identity theft statistics are not captured on this report. To reiterate, identity theft statics are published by another department within the USDOJ (of which the FBI is a part), the Bureau of Justice Statics.