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Pandemic Proves to Be Fertile Ground for Identity Thieves

Number of identity theft cases more than doubled in 2020 from 2019, FTC report finds

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En español | Identity thieves were busier than ever as the pandemic erupted nationwide last year, with reports of identity theft in the U.S. skyrocketing to nearly 1.4 million in 2020, more than double the number a year earlier.

The figures released Thursday by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a consumer protection agency, show identity theft reports last year were more than triple the number from 2018. Cases reached 1,387,615 in 2020; 650,523 in 2019; and 444,344 in 2018.

Criminals chase headlines

The FTC saw an astonishing 2,920 percent annual hike in the number of identity theft cases in which victims said their information was used to apply for or receive government benefits, such as unemployment compensation. The disturbing trend likely stems from the trillions of federal dollars unleashed in COVID-19 relief.

Identity Theft Reports on the Rise

Thieves also hijacked other peoples’ identities to obtain driver's licenses, passports and other government-issued documents, said FTC spokesman Jay Mayfield.

The findings are in the FTC's 2020 Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book. The annual analysis puts the 4.7 million overall complaints from consumers into one of three buckets: identity theft; fraud; and other consumer problems such as those involving credit bureaus, bankers and lenders.

Median Fraud Losses By Age

Key fraud takeaways in 2020:

  • There were 2.18 million reports of fraud, and impostor scams were the most common type of fraud. These involve criminals posing as others to wheedle money or personal information from victims. For example, the crooks may masquerade as a government employee; romantic interest; or relative or friend with an urgent financial need.
  • Frauds grew from 1.72 million reports in 2019, and year-over-year losses climbed to more than $3.3 billion in 2020 from $1.8 billion a year earlier.
  • Not everyone who reports fraud actually lost money: Only 18 percent of those age 80 and older said the fraud deprived them of assets. Worryingly, though, that age cohort suffered the largest median loss of any group: $1,300.
  • Median fraud losses were $635 for victims age 70 to 79; $436 for those 60 to 69; $325 for those 50 to 59; $278 for those 40 to 49; $250 for those 30 to 39; $324 for those 20 to 29; and $180 for those 19 and younger.

ID theft outbreak in Kansas

Kansas led the country in per-capita reports of identity theft, with 1,483 reports for every 100,000 residents. When metro areas across the U.S. were analyzed, four in Kansas led all others: Topeka had 1,925 reports for every 100,000 persons; Lawrence, 1,717; Wichita, 1,395; and Manhattan, 1,207. In fifth place was Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with 1,195 identity theft reports for every 100,000 residents.

Fraud plagues Florida communities

Florida ranked third in the U.S., behind Nevada and Delaware, for fraud and other complaints on a per-capita basis. When metro areas were analyzed, half of those in the top 10 were in the retiree-rich Sunshine State. Here's the list including cases of fraud and other reports for every 100,000 people:

1. Tuscaloosa, Alabama (2,273)

2. Sebastian-Vero Beach, Florida (1,614)

3. Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway, Arkansas (1,376)

4. Memphis, Tennessee (1,361)

5. Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, Florida (1,319)

6. Homosassa Springs, Florida (1,261)

7. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta, Georgia (1,227)

8. Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, Nevada (1,223)

9. Jacksonville, Florida (1,136)

10. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida (1,094)

FTC officials pointed to a surge in complaints about online shopping during the early days of COVID-19 that led related problems to become the second most common fraud complaint last year after impostor scams. These problems included undisclosed costs; late deliveries or nondeliveries; and refusals to honor guarantees.

The third most common fraud complaints involved internet services stemming from issues with websites offering content for a fee or sites advertising products or services.

Frauds involving supposed prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries were in fourth place; frauds related to telephone and mobile services were in fifth place.


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Fraud fighters contribute to report

The data is comprised of reports made to the FTC; to federal, state, local and international partners; and to nonprofits including the AARP Fraud Watch Network and Better Business Bureau. New to the 2020 data book are 199,099 reports contributed by the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center, ic3.gov.

The data book also features a state-by-state guide to reports of fraud, identity theft and other consumer complaints showing overall fraud losses and state rankings.

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.

AARP’s Fraud Watch Network can help you spot and avoid scams. Sign up for free Watchdog Alerts, review our scam-tracking map, or call our toll-free fraud helpline at 877-908-3360 if you or a loved one suspect you’ve been a victim.

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