WASHINGTON – Cases of identity theft in Maryland jumped sharply last year, when 3,497 people reported theft of personal information that was later used to commit fraud, the Federal Trade Commission reported Wednesday.
That was up from 1,976 cases in Maryland the year before, according to the FTC. The state increase mirrored a national increase of 73 percent in identity thefts, from 220,000 reports in 2001 to 380,000 last year.
Despite the increase in reported cases, Maryland fell from fourth-worst to ninth-worst state in the nation for reports of identity theft per capita. There were 66 reports of identity theft per 100,000 people in Maryland in 2002, up from 37.3 per 100,000 a year earlier.
“Complaints to our office are increasing substantially,” Attorney General J. Joseph Curran said Wednesday.
Identity theft has been at the top of the FTC’s list of fraud reporting since it was first tracked in 2000. By 2002, it accounted for 43 percent of the fraud complaints to the commission.
Victims reported losses of $100 million in 2001 and $343 million in 2002 that stemmed from the misuse of information like credit card, bank account and Social Security numbers.
But the increase in complaints does not necessarily mean an increase in the crime, said J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer protection. He said the change might result from the fact that more law enforcement agencies and more consumers know to report the crime to the FTC.
“It may be growing, it may be not. We can’t tell from the complaint data that we have,” he said.
The number of business, police and governmental agencies that report to the FTC stands at 630, up from 411 the previous year. Those organizations accounted for about half the reports to the FTC last year, while the other half came directly from the victims themselves.
Maryland’s relatively high rate of identity theft may relate to the relatively high income of its residents, Curran said.
“I would think we are probably a higher income state, and people (criminals) are inclined to use a higher income person than a person of moderate means,” he said.
People often do not know how, or when, their identifying information was stolen, Beales said.
“Sometimes people don’t know for years,” he said. “When consumers tend to find out is when there’s a collection.”
The only way consumers can be certain their identity has been stolen before someone comes looking for money is to check their credit reports, he said. Consumers should weigh the cost and time of checking their reports against the risk of letting it go unchecked, Beales said.
In Maryland, people have the right to obtain a free copy of their credit report once a year, said Curran, adding that consumers need to protect themselves.
“People are not being as careful as they should be with their personal information,” he said. “Personal information should remain very, very confidential because it’s used to apply for credit.”
Beales said consumers should not leave credit card receipts with their account number lying around. Bank account numbers and Social Security numbers should not be given out without a good reason.
But Beales said some information is stolen from within legitimate businesses by unscrupulous employees, which points to the need to check credit reports from time to time.
“It’s a significant law enforcement problem and a significant business education problem,” Beales said.