Nearly 42 million Americans were victims of identity fraud in 2021, costing consumers $52 billion in total losses, according to a new report cosponsored by AARP. The study, produced by Javelin Strategy & Research, notes that with so many more people relying on the internet due to the pandemic, criminals had plenty of opportunities to harvest their victims’ personally identifiable information (PII). Thieves were especially eager to capitalize on the billions of dollars in stimulus funds that many people received as federal economic impact payments last year.
These factors and others caused losses through traditional identity fraud to increase by 79 percent over 2020, for a total of $24 billion stolen, according to the study. The number of people affected by traditional identity fraud also increased by an additional 5 million in 2021, for a total of 15 million people. Javelin defines traditional identity fraud as “the unauthorized use of some portion of another’s personal information to achieve illicit financial gain.” Many victims of this type of identity fraud may never find out how or when their personal information was compromised.
The individual cost of identity fraud also grew in 2021, with the average per-victim loss from traditional identity fraud rising by $201, to $1,551. According to the study, victims spent an average of nine hours resolving their identity fraud issues.
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“The 2021 losses are staggering and underscore how damaging identity fraud has become,” said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention programs at AARP. “Institutions must show empathy for the financial and emotional toll that identity fraud takes on its victims, who expect — and deserve — to be treated with respect, regardless of their situation.”
Scammers are switching tactics
Another type of fraud the report examines is identity fraud scams. Unlike traditional identity fraud, in which the victims usually don’t know how they became vulnerable, identity fraud scams happen when a crook directly deceives someone into giving away some of their PII, either through phone calls, email, text messages or some other manner. These identity fraud scams decreased in 2021, according to the report. There were 12 million fewer victims of these scams last year, and the amount of money lost to such crimes dropped by $15 billion. But with a total of 27 million victims losing a combined $28 billion, identity fraud scams continue to be an enormous problem.
The average loss per identity fraud scam victim fell from $1,100, in 2020, to $1,029, in 2021. The report attributes the declines in these scams to efforts from “government agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, to track and dismantle robocalls, fraudulent emails and SMS text message scams.”
In turn, the decrease in identity fraud scams may have contributed to the rise in incidents of traditional identity fraud.
“The 2021 data has shown criminals will change strategies to evade detection and maximize the amount of information they can extract from victims,” said John Buzzard, Javelin’s lead fraud and security analyst and author of the report.
The two types of fraud — traditional identity fraud and identity fraud scams — combined for a total of $52 billion in losses and 42 million victims in 2021.
Fraud by the numbers
The is the 19th year that Javelin has published the fraud report. To compile the study, Javelin conducted an online survey of 5,000 U.S. residents age 18 and older from Oct. 30 through Nov. 16, 2021. The sample is representative of the U.S. census demographics distribution, and the data is weighted using U.S. population benchmarks on age, gender, race/ethnicity, education and other factors. Other noteworthy numbers in the study include:
- Fraud involving existing credit cards increased 69 percent. These fraudulent charges cost consumers an estimated $9.3 billion.
- Consumers spent 16 hours on average to dispute charges on fake accounts. Identity fraud in which criminals opened a new account using a person’s PII affected 4.9 million victims. The losses through this type of fraud totaled $6.7 billion.
- Seventy percent of respondents trust fingerprint scanning, facial recognition and retinal scanning to fight fraud. Javelin predicts this level of support could encourage more financial institutions to increase use of these technologies.
- Identity fraud involving existing checking, savings, insurance or other accounts totaled $7.8 billion. This type of fraud increased 73 percent from 2020.
How to better protect yourself from identity fraud
The Javelin report does contain some observations about how consumers can better protect themselves from becoming victims of financial fraud:
- Use unique passwords for each website. The reports notes that if you use the same login for every website, “criminals need to hack, purchase or scam identity [you] only once to obtain a key that literally can open every lock.” Your passwords also should be longer and more complex (using upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols).
- Avoid clicking on links in text messages. Whether it’s a message notifying you of lottery winnings, job offers or a potential virus threat to your smartphone, do not click on links that appear in unsolicited text messages. The link could launch malware that collects your PII without your knowledge.
- Avoid scanning unknown QR codes. Many QR codes — those square black-and-white boxes that open websites when you scan them with the camera on your smartphone — will take you to legitimate businesses. But think twice before you scan an unknown QR code out of curiosity. It “may take [you] to dangerous, malware-infested web addresses,” the report says. In fact, the “FBI recently warned consumers to use more caution when interacting with QR codes that are pasted to ATMs or appear randomly in public places.”
Kenneth Terrell covers employment, age discrimination, work and jobs, careers and the federal government for AARP. He previously worked for the Education Writers Association and U.S. News & World Report, where he reported on government and politics, business, education, science and technology, and lifestyle news.