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Consumer Fraud Complaints Hit Record High

FTC report shows spikes in identity theft, government impostor scams

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Consumer complaints crept upward in the U.S. to a record level last year, according to national data released Thursday. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said overall reports numbered 3.2 million, for a 3 percent rise from 2018 levels. The FTC tracks complaints in three broad categories: fraud, identity theft and other consumer complaints.

Fraud was, by far, the biggest source of consumer angst in 2019, with nearly 1.7 million fraud complaints recorded. Next came more than 892,000 “other” complaints (ranging from problems with credit bureaus to funeral services), followed by almost 651,000 complaints of identity theft.

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Impostor scams are booming

Within the fraud category, government impostor scams in 2019 jumped nearly 53 percent over the prior year, a notable rise. In government impostor scams, criminals pretend to be employees of the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration or other agencies, and con or threaten people into forking over money or sensitive details, such as banking information.

Impostor scams go beyond government impostors to encompass romance fraudsters and tech support, as well as cases in which crooks masquerade as a business associate, relative or friend. Overall in 2019, nearly $667 million was lost to all impostor scams, the report says. That's up from $497.2 million the previous year, for a 34 percent increase. Overall fraud losses were more than $1.9 billion last year, up from more than $1.48 billion in 2018, for a 28 percent jump.

Not everybody lost money in the reported cases of fraud, identity theft and other matters; some people file complaints to alert authorities. For example, about 1 in 10 reports of impostor scams last year involved people actually losing money, with a median loss of $700.

As for identity theft, which is tracked separately from fraud, complaints spiked 46 percent during 2019 compared to the previous year. There were 650,572 reports last year and 444,358 in 2018.

Other key report findings

Median loss of fraud victims by age:

  • $448 for people in their 20s
  • $379 for people in their 30s
  • $410 for people in their 40s
  • $500 for people in their 50s
  • $600 for people in their 60s
  • $800 for people in their 70s
  • $1,600 for people age 80 and older

The top 10 locations for fraud and other consumer complaints on a per-capita basis were (in descending order): Washington, D.C., Nevada, Florida, Delaware, Maryland, Georgia, Arizona, Oregon, Colorado and Virginia. As for identity theft, the top 10 locations were Georgia, Florida, California, Texas, Nevada, Louisiana, Delaware, Washington, D.C., South Carolina and Maryland.

In addition:

  • In the fraud category, top complaints centered on impostor scams, telephone and mobile services, and online shopping and negative reviews.
  • In the identity theft category, top complaints pertained to credit card fraud and loan or lease fraud.
  • People ages 20-29 more often reported losing money to fraud (in 33 percent of the complaints made) compared to those ages 70 to 79 (13 percent). But the median dollar loss grew steadily beginning when fraud victims were at least 50 years old. (See sidebar.)

Fraudsters phone it in

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The report said the most common method used by fraudsters to get in touch with victims last year was by telephone, followed in descending order by websites, e-mail, consumer-initiated contacts, mail and other.

The most common ways fraudsters collected payments were, in descending order based on the number of reports: wire transfers, credit cards, gift or reload cards, bank account debits, internet/mobile payments, cash or cash advances, checks, money orders and telephone bills. Measured by dollars, the top methods to pay fraudsters in 2019 were wire transfers, with $439 million lost; credit cards, $135 million; cash and cash advances, $120 million; and gift and reload cards, $103 million.

The report is the Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book 2019, part of the FTC's effort to tabulate such statistics since 1997. Though many frauds, scams and other consumer complaints go unreported, the data book is regarded as one of the country's most reliable sets of statistics on the subject.

The complaints include those taken by the FTC and federal, state, local and international law enforcement agencies, although not every outside entity participates. Other reports are from nonprofits such as the AARP Fraud Watch Network and the Better Business Bureau.

The FTC takes complaints online and by phone, toll-free, at 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357). 

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