A new report compiled by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that an estimated 16.6 million people (or roughly 7 percent of all Americans age 16 or older) experienced some form of identity theft in 2012.

The total financial damage is estimated at approximately $24.7 billion dollars (yes, with a B), which amounts to $10 billion more than can be attributed to all other types of property related crime over the same time interval.  This information was based on the identity theft supplement (ITS) to the National Crime Victimization Survey.  The ITS surveyed about 70,000 persons age 16 or older in the US about their experiences with identity theft over the past 12 months.  The ITS study defines identity theft as “the attempted or successful misuse of an existing account, such as a debit or credit card account, the misuse of personal information to open a new account, or the misuse of personal information for other fraudulent purposes, such as obtaining government benefits or providing false information to police during a crime or traffic stop.”

The information relayed in this report cuts sharply against commonly cited rhetoric over the past few years asserting that crime is at its lowest levels in 30 years.  Many of these sources fail to include identity related frauds in their calculation when they cite numbers supporting dropping crime rates nationwide.  While violent crime continues its downward trend, this study joins a growing chorus of voices which assert that identity theft and related crimes are growing at an alarming rate.  According to the report, the most common way victims discovered they had fallen victim to identity theft was when a financial institution contacted them about suspicious activity on an account. This is a noticeable double-edged sword.  While the banking and financial industries are unquestionably becoming more astute at spotting suspicious activity and ever more efficient at mitigating the fallout, this statistic can also be shown to infer that the average consumer still does not have a high enough level of awareness towards the risk of identity crime.  The many simple steps one can take to lower their risk of victimization, and what processes to follow should they find their identities have been used improperly, are things that many consumers are still blissfully ignorant of. According to the study, 2 of every 3 victims did not know how the offender obtained their information, and 9 out of 10 had no idea who the perpetrator might be.

The concept of identity theft as a vaguely scary specter is generally acknowledged by the public at large, exactly what identity theft is and why the public should be educated about it is still largely misunderstood amongst the general public. The report also found that while victimization rates did not vary significantly based on gender, households making $75,000 annually had a higher prevalence of identity theft than lower income brackets.

While the findings in the BJS report are by no means indicative of a new narrative on the subject of identity theft, they are very significant for several reasons.  First: the source of the study itself.  Unlike a for-profit company in the data security space or a for-hire survey group, the Department of Justice represents a nearly unimpeachable source in this case, with no financial motives to either inflate or diminish the severity and prevalence of this crime, and very stringent controls to ensure the data they compile is both accurate and thorough.  Secondly, it cuts in direct contrast to other recent studies that minimize the prevalence of identity theft in America, and attempt to make the argument that the crime rate as a whole is dropping precipitously across the board.  These sobering statistics show that for many criminals, the reason they no longer smash windows and steal stereos is that it’s far easier to perpetrate and get away with an identity related crime from the comfort of their home.  Instead of merely scaring the public to death with this information, it would behoove the national media for the benefit of all Americans to create a narrative of education for the public. Not merely to make them aware of the risks (and how common they’ve actually become) but to empower them with the methods of prevention and detection so that this crime becomes harder to perpetrate, and less damaging to mitigate.

If you found this information helpful, you may want to consider taking part in the Identity Theft Resource Center’s Anyone3 fundraising campaign.  For more information or to donate please visit http://www.idtheftcenter.org/itrc-launches-anyone3-campaign.