The worst consumer problem: Fraud and identity theft

One in 20 people was a victim in 2019. Account takeovers, which involve a criminal gaining access to an existing account, soared by 72 percent in 2019.

Fraud/ identity theft is the No. 1 complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, with 2.2 million complaints last year. Consumers reported losing $3.3 billion last year, up from $1.8 billion in 2019. Among the biggest issues: imposter scams, especially government imposter scams, and online shopping. Actual incidents of fraud are much higher, according to Javelin Strategy & Research, which found in its most recent study that one in 20 people were affected by identity theft in 2019. Losses hit $16.9 billion, with consumers facing out-of-pocket losses of $3.5 billion.

So much of it is preventable — it just requires consumers to play some smart defense. But a few issues, like fraudulent unemployment claims, can’t really be prevented by consumers. Protecting yourself in cases like these means paying attention and taking quick action if something suspicious arises.

One shocking finding: Account takeovers, which involve a criminal gaining access to an existing account, soared by 72 percent in 2019. Account takeovers yield the biggest losses. In many cases, account takeovers can be prevented by consumers who’ve taken steps to protect themselves. In others, account takeovers can be detected and halted quickly by consumers who are active in managing their lives.

Here is actionable information to help you avoid the hassles, time and possibly financial losses that come with fraud:

22 tips to protect your identity
FAQ: The importance of freezing your credit files
Step-by-step instructions on how to freeze all of your credit files by phone or online in less than 20 minutes
Consumer Watchdog Associate Grace Brombach shares what she encountered freezing her credit files for the first time, in a blog and video
Fraudulent unemployment claims: You could be next — here’s what to do



Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.