According to Javelin Strategy and Research, the number of identity theft cases has risen for four consecutive years. Approximately 16.7 million people were victims of identity theft in 2017, accounting for $16.8 billion in losses. Given constant news stories about security breaches, there's no indication that 2018 will break that trend.
A 2018 Harris poll found that almost sixty million Americans have been victims of identity theft at some point in their lives.
So how is it that Americans are less concerned about identity theft than they have been in the past?
According to the 2017 survey from the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), 57 percent of households with online activities were concerned about identity theft, compared to 63 percent in the 2015 survey.
Other privacy and security concerns either stayed the same or slightly decreased from the 2015 survey, including credit card/bank fraud, online data collection, and loss of control over personal data. Overall, the percentage of online households with privacy and security concerns dropped from 84 percent in 2015 to 73 percent in 2017.
The decreased lack of concern is reflected in online habits. In 2015, 29 percent of online households avoided online financial transactions. In 2017, that number dropped to 24 percent. Only 16 percent of online households refuse to buy goods or services online in 2017, compared to 26% in 2015.
At least we learn from our mistakes. The NTIA study found that households that suffered a security breach over the previous year were more likely to avoid various online activities. Consider that 33 percent of online households with breaches within the past year refrained from online financial transactions, compared to 22 percent of online households who didn't suffer breaches. Similarly, households with security breaches were two times more likely to avoid online searches.
Security concerns aren't affecting our social media habits, either. While 26 percent of households avoided posting on social networks in 2015 because of these concerns, only 14 percent avoided posting in 2017. Similarly, 19 percent avoided expressing a controversial opinion online in 2015 compared to 11 percent in 2017.
Perhaps people are simply numb from the steady flow of security breaches. The Identity Theft Resource Center reported over 1,500 data breaches in 2017, including a breach at the credit bureau Equifax that affected 147.9 million Americans — a particularly difficult breach since credit bureaus have collective information on any American with a credit history.
The NTIA data suggests that if you haven't experienced a data breach yet, you're more likely to assume it won't happen to you. In both the 2015 and 2017 surveys, 70 percent of households affected by security breaches listed identity theft as a concern. In the 2017 survey, only 54 percent of households who hadn't suffered a breach called it a concern.
More Americans may be complacent about identity theft, but that doesn't mean that you should be one of them. Use common sense precautions like strong passwords that you change frequently. Check your credit report regularly for signs of identity theft. Give out personal information only when necessary and shred any sensitive documents before throwing them away.
If necessary, consider a credit freeze that makes it nearly impossible for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. The annoyance of freezing and unfreezing your account is far smaller than the annoyance of clearing your credit file.
Don't wait for a credit breach to affect you before you pay attention to security breaches. You can avoid a very expensive lesson.
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