How Common Is Identity Theft? Could You Be Next?

How common is identity theft? It’s a reasonable question. Even if you haven’t been victimized, when you hear news of another significant data breach or a friend tells you a story of ID theft woe, you may wonder if you’re next—or if it’s something you need to worry about at all. You already have enough on your plate, right? Let’s look at the latest numbers.

Nearly 60 million Americans have been affected by identity theft, according to a 2018 online survey by The Harris Poll. That same survey indicates nearly 15 million consumers experienced identity theft in 2017.

Publicly available numbers from Javelin Strategy & Research since 2012 tell a similar story:

Number of Identity Theft Victims And Amount Stolen
Year Individuals Impacted (in millions) Amount Stolen (in billions)
Source: Javelin Strategy & Research
2017 16.7 $16.8
2016 15.4 $16.2
2015 13.1 $15.5
2014 12.7 $16.4
2013 13.1 $19.3
2012 12.6 $22.1

So, yes, the crime of identity theft is relatively common. And it’s probably safe to assume it won’t be dropping anytime soon. Why? Data breaches.

While there are many stories of identity theft in the news, what we tend to hear more about are data breaches—in which a company or other organization’s customer’s records, which may include full names, Social Security numbers, and other personal information, are accessed fraudulently.

The folks at the Identity Theft Resource Center publish regular summaries of U.S. data breaches, and it’s important to note that breaches can have an impact on identity theft.

In 2017, the Identity Theft Resource Center counted a new record high of 1,579 data breaches, exposing more than 178 million records. The big one—involving Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting agencies—received a lot of attention. Not only was the number of potential victims quite large at 147.9 million, the kind of information exposed was significant. It included names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver’s license numbers.

Most common types of identity theft

What are the most common types of identity theft? According to the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency that maintains a sort of warehouse for identity theft complaints, the crime falls into six major categories:

  1. Employment- or tax-related fraud (34%)
    What it is: A criminal uses someone else’s Social Security number and other personal information to gain employment or to file an income tax return.
  2. Credit card fraud (33%)
    What it is: The thief uses someone else’s credit card or credit card number to make fraudulent purchases.
  3. Phone or utilities fraud (13%)
    What it is: The criminal uses another person’s personal information to open a wireless phone or utility account.
  4. Bank fraud (12%)
    What it is: The fraudster uses someone else’s personal information to take over an existing financial account or to open a new account in someone else’s name.
  5. Loan or lease fraud (7%)
    What it is: A borrower or a lessee uses someone else’s information to obtain the loan or lease.
  6. Government documents or benefits fraud (7%)
    What it is: The criminal uses stolen personal information to obtain government benefits.

Editor’s note: Percentages add up to more than 100 because some complaints involved more than one type of identity theft.

How can you help protect yourself? Be smart. Take care of your important documents, so that your Social Security number and other personal information remain as protected as possible.