The crime wave of the future is nonlocal, seemingly random, and virtually anonymous—and the future is now.
Nearly 17 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2017, according to a report by market-data firm Javelin Strategy & Research. That is, cyber-thieves got a hold of the victims’ personal data—the numbers, codes, and passwords used to verify identity in virtual transactions—and used that information to make purchases, open new bank accounts, or simply sell for a quick Bitcoin on the dark web.
The Javelin report paints an alarming picture. In lots of ways, 2017 was a banner year for online fraudsters. Gone are the days of scraping credit data from card swipers themselves—the growth of embedded card chips has seen to that. But hackers are like water; blocked here, they flow elsewhere. As the physical world erects barriers to data theft, these bandits of identity redouble their efforts online.
In 2016, U.S. companies notified 12 percent of consumers that their data had been breached with a big ol’ “Sorry ’bout that.” In 2017, that figure ballooned to 30 percent. (Those figures, again, are from the good folks at Javelin.)
Here’s the weird thing: Identity theft is a largely online, decentralized phenomenon—but some states have higher incidences of reported identity theft than others. If the criminals are hiding out in some far-flung bunker grabbing social security numbers at random, you’d think the distribution of victims across states would be pretty equal. But it isn’t.
Some of these disparities are pretty easy to explain, says Emily Patterson, security expert at consumer information site A Secure Life.
“The most populous states have more identity theft, [which] makes sense, but states like Delaware are near the top for complaints per 100,000,” Patterson tells Urbo, citing 2016 data from the Javelin report.
Delaware’s significance throws a wrench into the high population theory of identity theft. Based on 2017 U.S. Census estimates, Delaware is the sixth least-populated state in the country. So what’s it doing so high on the fraud list, at No. 6?
“I can’t necessarily speak to why these patterns exist, though you may consider what groups of people are at higher risk or what types of risks exist and draw some parallels there,” Patterson says. “For example, Americans ages 60 to 69 filed 19 percent of all fraud reports in 2017, so states that have an older population might see more identity fraud and theft among this group.”
Regardless of the tangle of reasons the fraudsters strike one state more than another, you probably want to know if your state has people reporting identity theft left and right. Below are the five U.S. states with the most identity theft complaints in 2017, according to a special report from financial news site 24/7 Wall St.:
No. 5: Nevada
Sunny Nevada is an example of a state that’s not terribly populous—it was 33rd in the nation in terms of Census-estimated population size in 2017—but whose citizens can’t seem to keep their identities secure, comparatively speaking.
In 2017, there were 128 complaints of identity theft per 100,000 residents. Credit card fraud was the typical crime, making up nearly 40 percent of the total reported incidents. You can’t necessarily chalk this vulnerability up to age, either—TIME‘s reading of the 2016 American Community Survey places Nevada smack dab in the middle of the nation in age, with a median age of 37.9.
Maybe it’s the gambling thing, but we wouldn’t put money on it.
No. 4: Maryland
Maryland just edges out Nevada in the dubious honor of claiming lots of identity theft, with 129 complaints per 100,000 residents. Like Nevada, most of the crimes against Marylanders involved credit card fraud—35 percent of stolen identities were through compromised cards.
But unlike Nevada, the Old Line State packs a lot of people into a small space. Maryland is in the top 50 percent of states, population-wise, according to Census estimates—they land at No. 19, just below Missouri—but they’re the 42nd smallest state in terms of land area.
So it could be that there are simply enough consumers online in Maryland to launch them to the top of this list. Another “M” state gets that distinction.
No. 3: California
Here’s some support for the population-based theory of high identity theft rates. California has more residents than any other state in the Union. The Golden State also has the third most reports of stolen identities, with 140 per 100,000 residents in 2017.
There’s another weird thing about identity theft in California: It’s lucrative. Like most other states on this list, credit card fraud is the real prize (43 percent of reported identity-theft crimes). But the median value of the loss in these crimes is the second highest in the nation, at $500 a pop.
Don’t fret, Californians—just keep reading. Below this list, there are expert tips that can keep you from becoming a victim. But first, let’s take a trip across the country.
No. 2: Florida
The Sunshine State is Exhibit A for the hypothesis that large, older populations are correlated with higher rates of identity theft.
Lots of people live in Florida. It’s the third most populous state, only surpassed by Texas and California. The median age of residents is on the older end of the spectrum, too, with only four states tending to be longer in the tooth.
Unsurprisingly, Florida is a hotbed of identity theft. Floridians became victims at a rate of 149 reported identity frauds per 100,000 people, with 40 percent of those crimes involving credit cards. That credit card trend, you’ll soon see, stops here.
No. 1: Michigan
Michigan is an oddity. It’s the No. 1 state for reported identity theft with a reporting rate of 151 frauds per 100,000 individuals, but it doesn’t quite fit our forensic profile.
Sure, it’s populous—the tenth most populous state, to be exact. And the people of Michigan have a higher-than-average median age; it’s the 11th oldest state in those terms.
The odd thing here is that the Great Lake State doesn’t share the risk of credit card fraud the rest of this list suggests. Nope, most of the ID theft in Michigan is fraud related to government benefits or documents, which represents 27 percent of the reported identity thefts in the state in 2017.
Greater minds than ours will have to pull the meatballs out of this data spaghetti. The important thing is this: No matter where you live, what can you do to keep from becoming another statistic?
How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft (In All 50 States)
How do you keep your identity secure in an online world that reaches every city, state, and nation on the globe? Well, you don’t, not really. Ben Carmitchel is the president of Datarecovery.com, a data recovery service, and he says that toothpaste is out of the tube.
“It’s impossible to prevent identity theft after Equifax,” he says, referring to the security-world-shaking 2017 data breach at the credit bureau. “With $20 and a few minutes, you can get anyone’s data on the dark web. The only way you can do anything is to get a credit freeze with all the agencies.”
Cyber-security presenter and president of Hausman Technology Presentations, Steven Hausman, PhD, echoes this advice.
“One way [to prevent identity theft] is to place a freeze on all of your credit accounts,” Hausman tells Urbo. Note that he’s not referring to existing credit lines, like a credit card or a mortgage. He means your credit account with the big three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
“This means that no one will be able to apply for a credit card or any sort of credit in your name without removing the freeze,” says Hausman. “I understand that some people might find this inconvenient, but the freeze can be easily removed temporarily … if you should have the need to apply for a loan or new credit card. And a small amount of inconvenience, in my opinion, is minor when compared to resolving the consequences of identity theft and having large credit card bills in your name.”
Our experts are unanimous on this one; Californians, Floridians, and Michiganders, we’re talking to you.
“Generally, [freezing your credit reports] is a good first step for everyone because it prevents identity thieves from opening new credit accounts in your name,” says Patterson. “There is a small cost with each credit bureau to do so. …However, I would say that this is well worth the expense and effort, as identity theft is very costly and difficult to rein back in once it happens!”
If you’re ready to follow this triple-endorsed advice, the Federal Trade Commission is here to help. Check out this FAQ from the commission, which walks you through the credit-freeze process and what to do when it’s time for a temporary thaw.
No matter where you live, there’s an identity thief within arm’s reach—virtually speaking. Be vigilant.
“We’ve seen how easily and unexpectedly our data can be shared, compromised, and used fraudulently, so it’s more important than ever that we watch out for any signs that our identity has been stolen,” says Patterson.