That's according to Consumer Sentinel, the federal government's Web site focusing on the fight against fraud.
Reports of stolen Social Security numbers or credit-card accounts made up 23 percent of the 80,000 fraud complaints that were filed last year.
Other common complaints included problems with Internet service accounts or computer purchases, sweepstakes and lottery promotions, and Internet-based auctions.
Fraudulent investments were the most damaging financially, costing U.S. consumers at least $38 million in 2000. Business opportunities cost consumers another $34.5 million.
Criminals are increasingly using the Social Security numbers or credit-card accounts of others to make purchases or set up new accounts, a practice known as identity theft.
Misuse of credit cards accounted for 50 percent of all identity theft complaints in 2000, the FTC said. Criminals also used fake identities to set up false phone or utility bills, banking accounts and loans, and to create fake drivers' licenses, tax returns, and Social Security accounts.
The Social Security Administration says allegations of identity theft jumped to 62,000 in fiscal 1999 from 27,000 in fiscal 1998, making it the fastest-growing crime in the nation.
Identity theft can be a high-tech crime, but it doesn't have to be, according to FTC spokesman Hugh Stevens.
"You can be a victim of identity theft from putting out information on the Net, or from putting it out in your trash can," says Stevens, in an interview with CBS News.com.
One thing you can do, says Stevens, is to check bills carefully, to make sure there are no charges you don't recognize. Another trouble sign is bills that don't arrive: Your mail could have been diverted to someone else's address by a scammer who called in a change of address, eager to get a look at the personal information in your mail.
Calls to the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft hotline, 1-877-ID-THEFT, increased to about 1,700 per week in December from around 400 per week in March 2000.
"If you are a victim," advises Stevens, "one of the first things you need to do is contact the major credit bureaus and ask them to put a fraud alert on your file."
You'll also want to contact the authorities, who thanks to a law passed in 1998, now have a national clearinghouse to coordinate difficult investigations of identity theft crimes in which the scam artist and the victim are often geographically far apart.
Here are a few tips from the FTC on ways to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft:
- Whenever you are asked to reveal personally identifying information, find out how it will be used, whether it will be shared with others, and if you have the option of having the information ket confidential.
- Know when your bills are supposed to arrive and call your creditors to find out what's going on when a bill doesn't show up. Stealing your mail and the personal information it contains is a popular trick of identity thieves.
- Don't make it easy for others to steal your mail. Pick it up promptly after it's been delivered, deposit outgoing mail only in closed mailboxes or at the post office, and stop or forward your mail when you are away on vacation.
- Put passwords on your credit card, bank and calling card numbers and don't use easy-to-guess passwords such as your mother's maiden name, your birthday, consecutive numbers, or all or part of your address or Social Security number.
- Don't cram your wallet with more credit cards and identification information than you really need.
- Don't give out personal information over the phone, through the mail or over the Web, unless you have initiated the transaction or conversation or you know for sure who you are dealing with. ID thieves often pose as representatives of banks, ISPs, government agencies, or employees of sweepstakes companies.
- Keep bills and other items with personal information in a safe place and when it's time to throw them out, tear them up, as trash cans are a favorite hunting ground for scam artists in search of valuable ID information.
- Find out who at work has access to your personal information and to what degree that information is secure.
- Only give out your Social Security number when it is absolutely necessary. Ask to use other types of identifying information whenever possible.
- Don't carry your Social Security card. Instead, keep it in a safe place.
- Once a year, obtain a copy of your credit report - by law, for a charge of no more than $8.50 - from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. Make sure it is accurate. If it isn't, you may need to take action.
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