Affluent are more often victims of ID theft, report shows
Wealthy consumers who enjoy leisure activities such as tennis, skiing and international vacations are top targets for identity thieves, according to a new report.
A report released Wednesday by credit bureau Experian shows that fraudsters are on the hunt for the most affluent suburban consumers. Compared to the general population of credit applicants, Experian says these consumers live in and around metropolitan areas, favor leisure activities, have college diplomas or advanced degrees and more often tend to be married.
"The crooks are going where the money is," says Gail Hillebrand, senior attorney with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.
Most common traits, activities
Experian identifies the common activities of those most often victimized by ID theft:
• Foreign travel
Where -- and how -- these consumers live also seems to make them more of a target. "The opportunities to steal discarded documents would be greater in suburban areas," says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities with advocacy group Consumer Action. "More affluent households may have domestic help and service people who may have the opportunity to steal personal info from the home that can be used to acquire credit."
How did Experian identify this group of wealthy victims? The bureau's Fraud and Identity Solutions group -- in conjunction with Experian Marketing Services -- compared credit application data with thousands of individual fraud records between January 2007 and November 2008. It found that three of its 12 demographic groups were the most highly sought-after by identity thieves: "affluent suburbia," "upscale American" and the more middle-class "American diversity" category of consumers.
Experian found that compared with the general population of credit applicants, the consumers most often victimized by fraudsters tend to own more new and luxury vehicles and live in higher-income neighborhoods that contain many more homeowners than renters. Additionally, these borrowers tend to be based in densely populated metropolitan areas and often reside in multifamily homes or condos.
Thieves aren't the only group focusing on wealthy borrowers. "Lenders are obviously targeting some of these demographics as well," with better and more frequent offers of financial goods and services, says Keir Breitenfeld, director of product management for Experian's Fraud and Identity Solutions group. As a result, thieves who target these consumers and steal their information have an easier time getting credit and services in their victims' names. "If you're a fraudster, you want to assume the identity of someone who can go out and get high-value services," Breitenfeld says.
How to protect yourself
Consumer advocates, meanwhile, say that if the affluent can be victimized by ID thieves, anyone can. "You can't protect yourself. Even the most affluent suburban households, it's still happening to them," Hillebrand says. She says that banks and other institutions have an obligation to better guard consumer data. "We don't have much control over that as individual consumers. People who receive our data decide how carefully to protect our information," Hillebrand says.
However, Experian says lenders need to strike a balance between guarding consumers and not making them struggle unnecessarily to get approved for credit. If consumers must jump through too many hoops in order to get a loan, Experian says, the bank may end up losing their business. Still, Experian says its report suggests that financial institutions may want to do more to protect certain high-risk borrowers.
But it's not only lenders who need to take steps to guard against identity theft. "If you fall into that category, you may want to consider those services" aimed at preventing ID theft, says Maxine Sweet, Experian's vice president of public education.
Those services include:
• Credit freezes. Both Experian and Consumers Union say freezes offer benefits, but they can also mean added work for the consumer, such as getting a cell phone or utility service. "You have to be willing to be actively engaged in managing your credit report if you freeze," Sweet says.
• Credit monitoring. Credit monitoring, meanwhile, offers alerts about credit report activity -- typically for a price. Monitoring offers "piece of mind that every month there has been no activity and if there is activity you get a warning," Sweet says.
Consumers may also decide to fight for more ID theft protection from the government, including more oversight of players in financial system and restrictions on how borrowers' personal data can be collected and how long it can be kept, Hillebrand says.
She points to one of the interests highlighted by Experian's report. "If the people who are getting ripped off are interested in politics, they should get politically active," she says.
See related: 10 things you should know about identity theft, How to check for, fix ID theft or fraud, Identity theft sample letters, Personal finance predictions for 2010: ID theft, How to opt out of mail, e-mail and telemarketing solicitations
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