Cases of identity theft have risen dramatically in the United States over the last three years, according to findings from a survey released this month by technology consultant Gartner Inc., and while it is not often mentioned here, Israel is not immune from this problem.
Approximately 15 million Americans were victimized by some sort of identity-theft related fraud in the 12 months ending in mid-2006, according to the survey. This number represents more than a 50 percent increase since 2003, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported 9.9 million American identity-theft victims.
According to Gartner's CEO in Israel, Baruch Gindin, identity theft, including theft of identity cards, bank account numbers and user IDs and passwords is not dealt with in Israel as openly as it is in the US.
"In the US, there is more of a willingness to face the problem and deal with it, while here banks or credit card companies will be viewed as vulnerable and weak if it is reported that identity thefts are taking place within their systems," Gindin explained. "In the US, insurance companies share information; here that isn't the case and only the police know what is reported."
While the Israeli Police could not supply actual numbers of identity theft-related crimes here, Gindin informed The Jerusalem Post that the general pattern and frequency of identity theft corresponds with averages from other western countries. He added, however, that "unless someone goes door-to-door to track down this information, exact numbers cannot be determined."
Part of the problem is the lack of Israeli's awareness to the issue and the extreme steps that need to be taken to repair the situation when something happens.
"Most Israelis are not aware of the implications of identity theft mainly because credit rating isn't as highly developed here as it is in the US," explained Ronen Regev-Cabir, head of the research department at Emun HaTzibur, a consumer awareness organization.
What Israelis are aware of, he said, are stolen credit cards, and if used illegally, the owner faces an uphill battle to compensation.
"Unlike the system in the US [where they let you dispute a charge before making payment], here you will be charged automatically and then have to fight with the credit card company to get your money back," he said.
Despite the fact that personal identification numbers are used for everything in Israel from paying electric bills to obtaining a driver's license, very few instances of this information being stolen have been reported, according to the police.
Regev-Cabir predicts, however, that as Israeli on-line commerce grows, more and more cases of identity theft will be reported as thieves will have access to greater reservoirs of sensitive information thereby enabling them to open fraudulent accounts.
Identity thieves have discovered the weakest links in on-line payment systems, according to Gartner.
"Typically, the weak points are found among the five or more million businesses that accept electronic payments from consumers, and the consumers themselves," said Gartner Vice President Avivah Litan.
Gartner's survey highlighted the fact that the average loss on new account fraud in the US more-than-doubled from $2,678 in 2005 to $5,962 in 2006. Additionally, unauthorized charges on credit cards nearly quadrupled from an average of $734 to in 2005 to $2,550 in 2006.
"Oftentimes, consumers have no idea how criminals hijack their accounts and/or identities," Litan said, "however regardless of the method, enterprises that store credit card and bank account data should expect electronic data breaches or hacks, and migrate away from that practice while protecting their systems accordingly until they are able to do so."
Among the common ways identity theft can happen, according to the FTC's Web site, are dumpster diving, were thieves go through trash looking for papers with personal information; skimming, in which they steal credit/debit card numbers by using special storage devices when processing the cards; and phishing where they pretend to be financial institutions that send spam or messages asking for personal information.