According to a telephone poll of 5,000 consumers -- and extrapolations done by Javelin Strategy & Research -- the percentage of Americans affected by identity fraud fell from 4.7 to 4.0 percent between 2003 and 2006. That means the number of consumers tagged by fraudsters also declined, said Javelin, from 10.1 million in 2003 and 9.3 million in 2005, to an expected 8.9 million this year.
More important, said James Van Dyke, principal analyst at Javelin, was that the bulk of fraud begins offline, not on the Internet. "Internet use does not increase the risk of identity fraud," Van Dyke said. "Most data compromise, 90 percent, takes place through traditional offline channels and not via the Internet."
The survey's data showed that of the 53 percent of fraud victims who could name the cause, only 9 percent identified the online world as the source.
That runs counter to most analysts' opinions, as well as that of several surveys done in 2005 which noted that the threat of online fraud had made consumers fearful of the Internet and changed their online behaviors. A Consumer Reports survey done in October 2005, for example, said that 1 in 4 online Americans had stopped buying things on the Web and 1 in 3 had cut back e-purchases over identity theft worries. A more recent study conducted by IBM claimed that three times more Americans bet they'd be victimized by cybercrime than thought they'd be hit by physical crime.
"There are more identity theft attempts made online than offline," said Van Dyke to explain the difference between his survey and others. But that doesn't mean the attempts are successful, he added.
In fact, the Internet can lead to lower damages by those unfortunate enough to be victimized. "Electronic account monitoring is the fastest way to detect fraud," he said, and cited statistics of just 22 days before a fraud is detected for those watching their account balances online. (Those not monitoring accounts take a mean of 67 days to spot fraud, said Javelin's data.)
An expert on identity theft disagreed with the BBB's findings.
"They're ignoring where the growth in identity fraud is," countered Avivah Litan, a Gartner research director. "Offline crime may be most pervasive, but the growth is all in Internet-based crime.
"And remember who sponsors this survey," Litan noted.
Visa, Wells Fargo, and CheckFree -- representing the credit card, online banking, and online bill payment industries -- sponsored the survey.
"You can skin a statistics cat in multiple ways," added Litan. "Look at it like the difference between automobiles and airplanes. Everyone knows that airplanes are statistically safer, but you're not in control, so you feel more nervous flying than driving." Same with offline and online identity fraud. "The new threat online is the one that gets you nervous. It's less visible and you don't have control."
The BBB and Javelin argued that consumers, in fact, do have control over identity fraud.
"People are not helpless in protecting themselves," said Van Dyke. He suggested the usual -- don't give out personal information, for example -- but also advised consumers to use a personal firewall and keep anti-virus defenses up-to-date. Another helpful tool, he said, was to take advantage of the free credit report issued through the AnnualCreditReport.com site.
"We can stay on top of this," said Steven Cole, the chief executive of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.