After the string of data breaches at major retailers and large multi-national companies like Target, Home Depot and JP Morgan, for many these reports have become routine and mundane. But for me, each of these incidents represents more than just another data point. Each case represents a person exposed and at risk of having their identity stolen. For all too many, that will become a reality; and the aftermath of the crime will carry over to other aspects of their lives.

Identify theft affects a staggering 7 percent of the population annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics 2012 victim survey data, and totals nearly $24.7 billion in financial losses to the entire economy. While alarming, these numbers only tell part of the story, and indeed understate the size of the problem.


The Identify Theft Resource Center, which I lead, looked closely at the victim experience in our new report, Identity Theft: The Aftermath 2013, which is based on survey responses from identify theft victims we assisted. Our research shows that the effects of identity theft are more than financial. From an emotional standpoint, the experience continues to be traumatic and covers a broad range of emotions, including feeling suicidal (6 percent), shame or embarrassment (29 percent), overwhelming sadness (31 percent) and disbelief (41 percent). Nearly 70 percent of the respondents said they feared for their own personal financial security.

Furthermore, when people think of identity theft, they typically imagine stolen credit cards, bank account numbers or tax refunds, but our research found that identity theft takes many forms besides financial identity theft, including the use of stolen identities to commit criminal, medical, and government identity theft. These types of identity theft often have a greater impact on victims than the theft of financial data. They take longer to resolve, cause a greater out of pocket expense, and generally leave victims feeling more violated and emotionally scarred.

This problem is only getting worse, and is not captured by today’s crime statistics. Take property crimes, for example, which are widely reported to have dropped. This downward trend leads to the conclusion that we are effectively doing our jobs/duties and that our processes and policies are effective. However, this notion is false because property crime metrics do not capture thefts committed by fraud. This means that the ever increasing incidents of identity theft, and all financial frauds for that matter, are not a part of the Uniform Crime Report.

Consider the example of a vehicle theft via identity theft. Trends show vehicle thefts decreasing; however recent reports indicate that thieves are using stolen identities to lease or rent vehicles. The stolen vehicles then disappear and the victim is left attempting to explain that they are not responsible for the loss. Such a crime—although it is increasingly common—would be categorized as an identity theft, not as a vehicle theft; thus, our measurements continue to show a decrease in this crime. These criminals are not committing less crime; they are simply committing it in a different way.

More broadly, our research shows that identify fraud, due to its emotional impact and resulting behavior changes, can have an influence upon the overall health and economy of the U.S. Many victims reported a general sense of lost trust, and a lack of confidence in a “system” that had been unable to help them recover after the crime. The spillover effect should be obvious: each of these victims is an individual whose future decisions, including decisions on what to buy, from whom, and how much, are now influenced by their having been a victim of identity theft.

This awareness should create a new sense of urgency for all of us. Consumer trust is recognized as an integral part of a healthy business ecosystem, and this crime erodes that trust in long term and pervasive ways. As more and more individuals are victimized over the years, the reach of this overall distrust becomes exponential. This is crucial as we continue to build connectivity and the Internet of things takes hold. With a new way to access our personal data, we have no doubt that thieves will develop new and creative ways to monetize our data.

The risk of identity theft is not going away soon. If we are to limit its effects, we need to the hard work of raising awareness and improving remediation processes to lessen the emotional toll this crime takes. With this crime set only to increase in the future, the time to act is now. Identity thieves won’t wait, and we shouldn’t either.

Velasquez is president of the Identity Theft Resource Center.