FTC promotes ID theft awareness

The government's new quiz aims to highlight the growing problem, but the latest data suggests many consumers still fail to protect their identity.

See if your end-users answer these questions about identity theft:

  • Does your social security number make a good password?
  • Where can you get a free credit report?
  • Is TransUnion the name of one of the three consumer reporting companies?

To learn the answers, users should take the U.S. government's new quiz on identity theft, called ID Theft FaceOff!, at www.onguardonline.gov. Created by the Federal Trade Commission, the eight-question quiz is designed both to educate people on the most important issues in identity theft and to raise awareness of the issue.

"People are aware [of ID theft], but I don't think they take all the steps that they could to minimize their risk," said Nat Wood, assistant director for consumer and business education at the FTC.

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Identity theft -- in which a victim's personal information is used to do such things as take out credit cards or loans in the victim's name, commit crimes while masquerading as the victim, or access accounts -- has been on the rise in recent years. Thieves often obtain the information electronically by using malicious e-mails, instant messages or other types of worms or viruses to trick victims into granting them access their PCs, or through the hacking into databases of online retailers and consumer data aggregators.

At least 48 million people are estimated to have had their personal data lost or stolen in 2005. According to a recently released FTC report, Consumer Fraud and Identity Theft Complaint Data, more than 685,000 fraud and identity theft complaints were filed in the FTC's Consumer Sentinel database in 2005, which is made available to law enforcement agencies, and more than a third of which were identity theft complaints.

The most commonly reported identity theft complaint was credit card fraud, counting for 26% of all complaints last year. EFT or electronic fund transfer was the most frequently reported bank-fraud related identity theft in 2005, and earlier data shows that EFT fraud related to ID theft more than doubled between 2002 and 2004. An FTC survey done 2003 by Synovate, the market research arm of Aegis Group plc, found nearly ten million people had been victims of ID theft and/or credit card fraud.

The quiz takes the form of a game in which a character attempts to regain his or her stolen identity by correctly answering a series of eight questions. The questions cover topics such as appropriate passwords, key identity theft indicators, how to get a free credit report and which actions to take when identity theft is suspected.

San Francisco, Calif.-based Ferris Research Lead Analyst Richi Jennings, who covers e-mail topics such as malware and phishing attacks, said the quiz is a good way heighten ID theft awareness, but is too simplistic to be a good educational tool.

"But it's good in that it drives home the point for people that it is a complex issue," Jennings said, "and you're probably not as safe as you might think."

Jennings also pointed out that identity theft was not born with the Internet and e-mail; thieves frequently use old fashioned paper information as well.

"The most prosaic way [of stealing information] is by going through your trash," he notes. "Electronic ID theft is in the light at the moment, but the traditional stuff is still a big issue."

Wood said the FTC plans to publish more information on ID theft on its site in the spring, as part of a campaign to encourage organizations to educate customers and employees about the problem.

Organizations can link to the quiz, as well as accompanying articles, posters and other material at the FTC's site, www.ftc.gov/idtheft.

Sue Hildreth is a freelance IT writer based in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at Sue.Hildreth@comcast.net.

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