The Federal Trade Commission has released its annual report detailing consumer complaints about identity theft and listing the top 10 fraud complaint categories reported by consumers. As in 2000 and 2001, identity theft topped the list, accounting for 43 percent of the complaints lodged in the FTC's Consumer Sentinel database. The number of fraud complaints jumped from 220,000 in 2001 to 380,000 in 2002, and the dollar loss consumers attributed to the fraud they reported grew from $160 million in 2001 to $343 million in 2002.
"The FTC provides a clearinghouse for consumers," said J. Howard Beales III, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "We are the portal through which consumers can enter complaints and receive assistance and guidance." Beales said consumers can file fraud complaints online at www.ftc.gov. Identity theft victims, or people seeking tips to avoid being a victim, can log on at www.ftc.gov/idtheft.
Beales said the increased numbers of complaints from 2001 to 2002 had several possible explanations. "One of them has to do with the success of our outreach efforts - that is, more people know where to complain about fraud and ID theft. That's important because more complaints give us a more complete picture of the types of fraud that are occurring, the characteristics of fraud victims, and the companies that are appropriate targets for law enforcement," he said.
"Another explanation - or another part of the explanation - has to do with the increase in the number of partners to Consumer Sentinel who contribute and use data for enforcement purposes," Beales said. Forty percent of the complaints in the Sentinel database come through data contributors like the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General, the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, the National Consumers League's National Fraud Information Center, and many, many Better Business Bureaus around the country, Beales said.
The top 10 categories of consumer fraud complaints in 2002 include:
- Internet Auctions - 13%
- Internet Services and Computer Complaints - 6%
- Advance Fee Loans and Credit Protection - 5%
- Shop-at-Home/Catalog Sales - 5%
- Foreign Money Offers - 4%
- Prizes/Sweepstakes and Lotteries - 4%
- Business Opportunity and Work-at-Home Plans - 3%
- Telephone Services - 2%
- Health Care - 2%
- Magazines and Buyers Clubs - 2%
Consumer Sentinel is a database established in 1997 by the FTC in conjunction with the state Attorneys General and Canada's Phonebusters. "Sentinel currently provides about 630 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Canada and Australia with access to one million complaints. Consumer Sentinel has become law enforcement's virtual water cooler -- a place where information can be shared, investigations can be coordinated, and resources can be pooled. This makes for smarter and better law enforcement," Beales said.
The FTC has tips for consumers who want to protect themselves from fraud:
Protect your personal information. It's a valuable commodity. Only share your credit card or other personal information when you're buying from a company you know and trust.
Know who you're dealing with. Walk away from any company that doesn't clearly state its name, physical address, and telephone number. A Web site alone or a mail box drop should raise suspicions.
Don't rely on oral promises. Get all promises in writing and review them carefully before you make any payments or sign any contracts. Read and understand the fine print in any written agreement.
Don't pay "up-front" for a loan or credit. Remember that legitimate lenders never "guarantee" a loan or a credit card before you apply, especially if you have bad credit, no credit, or a bankruptcy.
Copies of consumer brochures are are available from the FTC's Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint, or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1- 877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov.The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
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