By Jonathan Stempel
Americans lost about $49.3 billion in 2006 to criminals who stole their identities, an 11.5 percent decline that may reflect increased vigilance among consumers and businesses, a study released on Thursday shows.
Losses declined from a revised $55.7 billion in 2005, according to the third annual study by Javelin Strategy & Research. They had increased in each of the prior two years.
The average identity theft fraud fell 9 percent to $5,720 from $6,278, while the median -- where half were larger and half were smaller -- held steady at $750.
"Businesses are doing a better job screening, and consumers are doing better at locking up information and monitoring their accounts," said James Van Dyke, founder and president of Pleasanton, California-based Javelin, in an interview.
"The dollar amount is dropping," he added, "but $49 billion is still a lot of money."
According to the study, 8.4 million adult Americans, or one in 27, learned last year that criminals committed fraud with personal data such as credit card or Social Security numbers. That's down from 8.9 million in 2005 and 10.1 million in 2003.
Adults under 25, African-Americans, and people who make more than $150,000 were among the groups most likely to suffer fraud, the study said. The youngest adults were also among the least likely to take steps to stop it, the study said.
Consumers on average spent $535 to clear up a fraud, though more than half spent nothing, the study said. Many businesses excuse customers from liability for certain frauds.
Results were based on a phone survey last fall of 5,006 people, including 469 who said they were fraud victims.
The survey was sponsored by Wells Fargo & Co., the fifth-largest U.S. bank; Visa, the credit card association; and CheckFree Corp., which makes bill paying software.
Notwithstanding the apparent decline in fraud, security experts say identity theft remains a big problem, as scammers try to stay one step ahead of consumers and businesses.
Some are fighting back. U.S. regulators, for example, ordered banks by the end of last year to require a second form of identification before letting many customers transact online.
Yet security breaches still occur. In January, TJX Cos., which owns clothing discounters T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, reported a breach that analysts said might have exposed millions of people's personal data.
"We think consumers need improved ability to monitor and customize account information, especially as transactions move increasingly to the Internet and mobile devices," Van Dyke said.
Experts urge consumers not to divulge personal data in response to unsolicited e-mails or callers.
They also suggest that consumers notify financial services providers and file "fraud alerts" with the Equifax, Experian and TransUnion credit bureaus if they suspect identity theft.
Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.
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