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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Another round with the Identity Theft Bugaboo

Just in case, you might want to know that I use the term "bugaboo" as referring to an object of obsessive, usually exaggerated fear or anxiety. I recently wrote about the lack of email addresses supplied by contributors to the Family Tree. At the heart of that situation is the unreasonable fear that our society has created about "Identity Theft." People are afraid to put their name on a secure and very reasonable website merely because they have an undefined threat labeled "Identity Theft." I say undefined because that is exactly what it is and how the term is used.

I recently saw an advertisement in the Costco magazine for a Costco product that caught my eye on this subject. The tag line on the ad stated, "Are your checks safe? Identity theft is on the rise - claiming a new victim every 3 seconds!." There was an asterisk at the end of the statement that led to some small print at the bottom of the page that said, "Based on study data provided by" Hmm. Why not based on actual criminal prosecution records? Or on actual criminal conviction records? Or better yet, actual police or other law enforcement records? Why is the Costco relying on a study done by some company?

Javelin Strategy and Research ( is a company selling this kind of information to businesses. Do you think it is in this company's interest to tell its customers that they don't need Javelin's services? The report about Identity Theft referenced on that website mentions 17 other companies that are in the identity protection market. Isn't this like going to an insurance salesman and asking if you need insurance? Or going to a lawyer and asking if you need legal advice?

Why am I picking on this ad in a genealogy blog? Simple. The whole genealogical community is saturated with a morbid fear of identity theft. I cannot teach a class where putting your genealogical information online is discussed that this issue does not come up. Using this type of tag line is irresponsible and constitutes fear mongering.

Let's look at the basic premise of the ad, that identity theft claims one new victim every three seconds. There are 31,536,000 seconds in a year divided by 3 that would be 10,512,000, more or less. So, if the claim is true, there should be at least that many new identity theft victims every year and according to the ad, identity theft is on the rise. According to the US Census Bureau, there is one new birth in the US every 8 seconds. With deaths and immigration figured in, the population of the US rises at the rate of a net gain of one person every 16 seconds. So, the rate of increase of identity theft is apparently rising more than five times faster than the increase in the general population of the US. Hmmm.

The current population (US Census Bureau again) of the US is 317,180,732 plus another person every 16 seconds from the time I wrote this post. Let's divide the two numbers and see what the ad is really saying about identity theft. If you simply divide the total population by the claimed number of NEW victims every year you get roughly 30. That means that in less than thirty years, at the current rate, every single man, woman and child in the US will become a victim of identity theft at some time during the 30 year period. But since the rate is rising and is faster than the net population increase the time period is probably less.

But wait a minute. This is patently ridiculous. Think about it. Who is motivated to go around stealing the identity of poor people who have no assets? Who is going to go around stealing the identity of all the people in jail and all the people who are out stealing identities. Note that the statistic cited applied to new cases, but what about the people who have their identity stolen more than once?

There are two real questions to ask about this subject. Where is the data to support the claims and what is the definition of identity theft being used? Without answering both those questions, the claims as patently false and misleading. Would it interest you to know that the total number of all criminal prosecutions on the Federal level for fiscal year 2011 for defendants charged in misdemeanor criminal cases was 8,501? That is for all crimes combined. So how many people were charged with identity theft? Unfortunately, that figure is not available because there is no commonly accepted definition of identity theft. If you would like to read the actual statistical report, you can from the Federal Trade Commission. By the way, for 2012 the total number of identity theft reports, not prosecutions, not convictions, simply complaints was about 360,000. What happened to the other almost 10 million?

Most of the genealogists I know are rational people. Why are they irrational on this subject?

1 comment:

  1. Nice article James! Making your email address clearly visible in plain text (as opposed to, say, in an image - or hidden behind some contact-the-author form) might result in SPAM finding its way to you, but Identify Theft is something else.

    I know Identity Theft applies to more than just the computer world but in that specific case, I wonder how many people with this irrational fear might also be likely to click on some random ad. saying their computer is running slowly and inviting them to "let us do a free health check for you"? [Note to readers - never do that!]