NEW YORK (MainStreet) — For many, reading about data breaches and identity theft is scary enough. Chanette Sparks had the unfortunate experience of getting to live it first-hand.
“It was one of the scariest experiences I've ever encountered,” said the 32-year-old, whose identity was stolen by someone falsely filing her federal taxes. “I was worried about my own personal safety. I was worried about my children's safety and protection. I felt robbed of my personal and business protection.”
Sparks, who works in public relations and marketing in North Carolina, said while it only took about six months to get the situation resolved and her life back, it did cause her to reflect.
“It has caused me to take further precautions when sharing my personal and business information with a variety of sources,” Sparks said.
A recent study by Javelin Strategy & Research actually showed slight decreases in the number of victims and total losses caused by identity theft in 2014. The study showed criminals stole $16 billion in 2014, a decrease of 11% from $18 billion in 2013. Also, the number of victims of identity fraud decreased by 3 percent from 13.1 million in 2013 to 12.7 million in 2014.
“I interpret the apparent reduction in the number of people affected as being a temporary blip and not particularly accurate,” said Steve Weisman, a senior lecturer at Bentley University in Massachusetts and author of The Truth About Avoiding Scams (FT Press, 2008).
“A significant number of the elderly become victims of identity theft and never report it,” Weisman added. “In addition, the identity theft that flows from major data breaches does not always happen soon after the breach so we can well expect large amounts of identity theft to be occurring in the upcoming year.”
While the Javelin study showed a slight downward trend, identity theft still topped the Federal Trade Commission’s national ranking of consumer complaints for the 15th consecutive year — with 13% of all complaints having to do with identity fraud.
“Despite the headlines, the occurrence of identity fraud hasn’t changed much over the past year, and it is still a significant problem,” said Al Pascual, director of fraud and security at Javelin. “Consumers, financial institutions and retailers are all taking aggressive steps, yet we must remain vigilant.”
Kimberly Goodwin, an associate professor of finance at the University of Southern Mississippi, said she’s not surprised identity theft numbers have shown no significant movement downward and doesn’t expect any big change over the next year.
“Part of the problem is that the perpetrators of identity theft get better technology and new techniques every year, and there are more transactions and more information accessibly electronically all the time,” Goodwin said. “At the same time, businesses are deterred by the cost or lack the culture and flexibility to adjust their current technology in a way that sufficiently addresses hacking and identity theft.”
She said customers too have been equally slow to respond and remain reactive rather than proactive about the threat.
“It is easier to believe nothing will ever happen to you than to change your habits,” Goodwin added.
Goodwin said there are a few simple and easy steps consumers can take to decrease their chances of identity theft. Using cash more often when making a transaction is a good bet. What's more, it's important not to give out personal information to anyone emailing or calling, checking all bills line by line, check your credit report every three months.
While no strategy is completely foolproof, Sparks says the extra steps are worth the alternative that she had to live through. She said she does not believe the person who stole her Social Security number and identity has ever been caught.
“You just feel robbed and there is nothing you can do about it,” Sparks said.
--Written by Chris Metinko for MainStreet