It might seem impossible to size up the damage inflicted on consumers by identity thieves and other fraudsters, but the Federal Trade Commission has been attempting to do just that for more than a decade.
The agency maintains a database of complaints filed by consumers who have been the victims of scams, identity theft or telemarketers who violate the federal do-not-call list, among other misdeeds.
The database is called the Consumer Sentinel Network and is available only to law enforcement agencies as an aid to investigations. But the agency provides a summary for the rest of us in the form of an annual report, which I dissect here.
In 2010, more than 1.334 million complaints were added to the database, down slightly from 2009.
In addition to complaints made to the FTC, a number of other organizations contribute to the database, including the Better Business Bureau, state attorneys general, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, Identity Theft Assistance Center and, closer to home, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Identity theft: The big, bad boy
Almost one-fifth of all complaints received nationwide in 2010 concerned identity theft. Complaints about identities being stolen for use on government documents or to apply for benefits made up the biggest category. Credit card fraud came in second and phone or utility fraud was next.
More than half of identity theft victims were under 40.
Minnesota ranked 36th among states in the number of identity theft complaints per 100,000 population. We reported 49.2, for a total of 2,612 complaints.
Florida residents had the most complaints per capita. North and South Dakota had the fewest.
What form did the identity theft take in Minnesota? The largest number of complaints were for credit card fraud (19 percent) followed by government document or benefits fraud (12 percent), bank fraud (12 percent), and phone or utilities fraud (12 percent).
While identity theft was the largest single category of complaints in 2010, the number of victims has stayed fairly consistent since 2003, at about a quarter million.
By contrast, non-identity theft complaints have grown significantly. In 2003, there were 498,417 complaints recorded. In 2010 there were 1,088,411.
These complaints are mostly about scams and deceptive practices: sweepstakes scams, misleading charitable solicitations and the like.
In Minnesota, non-identity theft complaints numbered 14,770. We ranked 33rd in the nation with 278.5 complaints per 100,000 population.
Colorado residents filed the most complaints per capita, while North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa filed the fewest per capita.
The biggest category in Minnesota was "prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries" with 1,531 complaints, closely followed by 1,515 complaints about illegal debt collection practices.
"Internet services" came in third with 925 complaints, which covered a range of issues from trial offers to undisclosed charges and trouble cancelling Internet service.
The dollar damage
Nationwide, among the 86 percent of complainants who reported how much they lost, victims shelled out an average of $2,751 to fraudsters in 2010. Total loss was $1.7 billion.
In Minnesota, fraud victims reported losing $1,622 on average. Total loss was $15.1 million.
Metro area rankings
The Twin Cities metro area ranked 271st for identity theft complaints per capita compared to other metro areas with a population of at least 100,000. It ranked 233rd for all other complaints.
Go to www.startribune.com/a554 for the full report.
Hard Data digs into public records and puts a spotlight on rule breakers in Minnesota. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.