Identity thieves are typically young, work solo and rely on the Internet for fewer than a fifth of their crimes, according to a new study of U.S. Secret Service cases.
The Center for Identity Management and Information Protection also found that "insider" employees were the offenders in just one-third of the cases examined. But, when an employee stole identity information, they often worked in the retail industry, the CIMIP report found.
"There are some common perceptions we have that identity theft involves a person sitting at a computer hacking into corporate or individual computers ... Certainly it is happening, but it is a crime that is happening in a multitude of ways, some of it as simple as stealing mail out of a mailbox," said Gary Gordon, a professor of economic crime programs who founded and heads the CIMIP at Utica College.
The U.S. Department of Justice-funded study, which was to be released Monday at a news conference in Washington, D.C., is set apart from previous studies because it focused on identity thieves and their methods, rather than victims, said Michael Stenger, Assistant Director of Investigations for the Secret Service, which agreed to open its case files to CIMIP.
Gordon and Stenger said the findings help fill in some of the gaps identified in April by the President's Identity Theft Task Force, which said "unlike some groups of criminals, identity thieves cannot be readily classified."
For its analysis, CIMIP researchers reviewed 517 cases closed by the Secret Service between 2000 and 2006. Two-thirds of the cases were concentrated in the Northeast and South and there were 933 defendants.
The Federal Trade Commission has said about 3 million Americans have their identities stolen annually.
The CIMIP study found that 42.5 percent of offenders were between the ages of 25 and 34. Another 18 percent were between the ages of 18 and 24. Two-thirds of the identity thieves were male.
Nearly a quarter of the offenders were born outside the United States.
Eighty percent of the cases involved an offender working solo or with a single partner, the report found. Fewer than 5 percent of the cases involved more than five people, although one case had 45 defendants.
Most of the offenses were committed by non-employees who victimized strangers. Employee insiders were the offenders in just one-third of the 517 cases. When an employee did commit identity theft, the offenders were employed in a retail business in two out of every five instances, the report said. Stores, gas stations, car dealerships, casinos, restaurants, hotels, doctors and hospitals were all considered retail operations in the study.
In about a fifth of the cases, the employee worked in the financial services industry.
"This is important research," said Ann Wallace, executive director of the Identity Theft Assistance Center, a national nonprofit group that helps victims and law enforcement agencies fight identity theft crimes.
"We have to know more about the crime in order to fight it. This will help law enforcement understand the problem and it will help consumers better understand the risk."
Wallace had not read the study but said she was familiar with its findings, which were "consistent with what we hear from victims."
Three-quarters of the thieves wanted to obtain and use credit and to procure cash. But Gordon noted that 22 percent did it also to conceal their true identity while 20 percent did it so they could get a car loan. Fewer than 8 percent used the stolen information to manufacture and sell bogus IDs.
Of the 933 offenders, 609 said they initiated their crime by stealing fragments of personal identifying information, as opposed to stealing entire documents, such as bank cards or driver's licenses.
While identity thieves used a wide combination of methods, fewer than 20 percent of the crimes involved using the Internet. In half the cases, no Internet or technological devices at all were used.
"While the use of the Internet as a criminal tool had a presence, it did not appear to be a necessity for most offenders to reach their goals," the report said.
The most frequently used non-technological method was the rerouting of mail through change of address cards. Other prevalent non-technological methods were mail theft and dumpster diving.