Personal identity theft occurs when a criminal uses stolen personal identifiers to manipulate third-parties into taking actions under the false belief they are communicating with the individual whose identity has been stolen. A typical example is the criminal taking a loan out under someone else’s name or tricking tax authorities into sending a tax rebate to the criminal’s account. The bank will then pursue the identity theft victim for funds that were sent to the criminal.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Centre received over fifty thousand reports of identity theft in 2021, which is 300% higher than in 20191. The total economic cost in 2021 is estimated to be $278 million, which amounts to over $5000 per incident. Typical individuals will suffer an identity theft every 10 to 100 years, with the exact estimate varying based on the crime survey’s methodology and target population.
50000 reports of identity theft in 2021, 300% higher than in 2019
$278 million estimated total economic cost in 2021, amounts to over $5000 per incident
10 to 100 years typical individuals suffer an identity theft
A market for personal identity insurance has emerged to mitigate the associated harms. In a study supported by the WTW Research Network, Dr Daniel Woods from the University of Edinburgh extracted 34 personal identity insurance products that were uniquely filed with regulators in the US and conducted a content analysis on the policy wordings, pricing algorithms and actuarial tables to answer the following:
Which harms are covered by personal identity insurance?
What is the implied likelihood and severity of each harm?
How do insurers justify the scope and pricing of coverage?
Analysing the policy wordings reveals that personal identity theft causes several costs in terms of monitoring credit records, lost income and travel expenses, attorney fees, and even mental health counselling. The research analysis shows there are few exclusions related to moral hazard, suggesting identity theft is largely outside the control of individuals. The study also extracts actuarial calculations, which reveal financial impacts ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Finally, insurers provide support services that are believed to reduce out of pocket expenses by over 90%.
The insights could help individuals to manage privacy risk by evaluating the effectiveness of transferring the consequences to an insurer. Individuals may be further supported by the risk-reduction services that are often provided alongside insurance. Thus, one could consider privacy insurance as a form of privacy enhancing technology, notably a financial product that diverges considerably from the usual technical approach. The study also contributes to an emerging field of technology insurance that covers cyber attacks, cryptoassets, cyber bullying and artificial intelligence liability.
The following extract, which was included word-for-word in multiple regulatory filings, provides a concise summary of the study:
“While there are ways to reduce one’s exposure to identity theft, it is a crime that can strike anyone. Those who are victims of this crime need to make identity recovery a top priority, because otherwise:
While many financial institutions provide protections to consumers for the actual fraud loss, most individuals have no help for the time and expense required to restore their personal identities."
While the extract suggests there are “ways" of reducing exposure, the research shows insurers do not push policyholders towards implementing them. One explanation is that identity theft risk reduction is too ineffective or too onerous to ask of policyholders. This supports a narrative in which consumers are powerless to prevent privacy harms resulting from personal identity theft. The corresponding insurance coverage reflects a need for ex-post response solutions to both reduce privacy harms and indemnify the financial cost.
This study confirms one aspect of the privacy harm literature. Legal systems fail to recognise and remedy privacy harms. This is evidenced by the emergence of a private market covering the harms associated with identity theft incidents. The market also shows that the lack of support services leads individuals to suffer more harm. For example, one insurer anticipates case management services lead to a 90% reduction in the cost of an identity theft incident. Thus, policy makers could reflect on whether the impacts of identity theft and the expertise to remedy are fairly distributed across society. The status-quo in which financial smoothing and risk reduction services are privately provided undoubtedly skews towards affluent consumers.