WASHINGTON -- Identity theft was the leading consumer fraud complaint last year, far exceeding gripes about Internet auctions and services.
Of the 204,000 complaints compiled by the Federal Trade Commission, 42 percent involved identity theft, the agency said Wednesday. The figures come from a government database that collects complaints from more than 50 law enforcement and consumer groups.
Other top consumer fraud complaints were problems with Internet auctions (10 percent), involving goods that were delivered late or not at all and items less valuable than advertised; deceptive trial offers and charges from Internet and computer services (7 percent); and shop-at-home and catalog offers that failed to deliver or honor guarantees(6 percent).
The hijacking of someone's identity information, such as credit card or Social Security numbers, to steal money or commit fraud is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the United States. Privacy advocates have said the number of people victimized by identity theft may be as high as 750,000 a year.
Last week, a Seattle man was sentenced to more than two years in federal prison for stealing identity information from the garbage cans and mailboxes of almost 400 victims.
A day later, police in Washington state said they cracked an identity theft ring, seizing a huge amount of stolen mail, paperwork bearing Social Security numbers, forged receipts, equipment for making fake driver's licenses, and maps of mail routes.
In more advanced cases, hackers have been able to penetrate big corporations' databases and download credit card numbers and other data.
Most victims of identity theft eventually recoup their lost money, but they also suffer damage to their credit records and invasion of privacy.
The FTC's identity theft hot line gets about 1,700 calls weekly.
In November, the Supreme Court ruled that victims of identity theft or other credit fraud cannot stretch a two-year deadline to sue companies that collect or spread bad information, even if the victims don't learn of the problem until it is too late.
The top 10 areas of consumer fraud complaints compiled by the Federal Trade Commission in 2001:
1. Identity theft (42 percent)
2. Internet auctions (10 percent)
3. Internet services and computer complaints (7 percent)
4. Shop-at-home and catalog offers (6 percent)
5. Advance fee loans and credit protection (5 percent)
6. Prizes/sweepstakes/gifts (4 percent)
7. Business opportunities and work at home plans (4 percent)
8. Foreign money offers (4 percent)
9. Magazines and buyers clubs (3 percent)
10. Telephone pay-per-call/information services (2 percent)
On the Net:
FTC Identity Theft site: http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/